It might seem sexist and retro even to compile such a list. But raising three boys, I felt unprepared for the stark differences from my own life. I assumed much of what we divine as explicit for either sex were only learned behaviors. Not so fast. Here is what I found to be true and wish someone had told me.
1. It's mostly about the food. I was surprised to learn from the moments a boy is born until he is a grown man hunting in the refrigerator for leftovers 6 inches in front of him, the uncomplicated truth is that eating is a source of entertainment, distraction, comfort, and sustenance. I had heard horror stories about children who refused to eat specific foods. So I was surprised and unnerved that my three sons devoured anything served - often with bare hands. They do not appreciate artfully presented tapas or delicate small bites. They want high-caloric, Paleolithic content. Now. And then again in an hour. Many a dinner was inhaled by the boys before I sat down to the table. Yes, girls can be big eaters too. But in our house, stuffing on Thanksgiving is both a noun and a verb.
2. Emotions may run deep, but not in plain sight. For the first several years of their lives, it appeared each of my boys (and a few others I knew) had an emotional repertoire of hungry (see above), happy, tired, and angry. This narrow inventory of expressed emojis belied their true depth. They had high emotions, sure; they just did not want to talk about them much. Unlike my sisters who engaged daily in complex, thoughtful, soulful, tearful, extended conversations about interpretations, meanings, and subtle gray areas with their daughters, I learned that my sons waited for one-on-one time to dive deep - infrequently - into their feelings.
3. Style loses to function. For years, I got away with buying in bulk - knit winter caps at the dollar store, jeans, khakis, T-shirts, plain winter coats in blue, black, gray, or dark green wherever and whenever I came across them on sale. Unlike me, who for years wrote about fashion and still follows fashion bloggers, my sons only paid a teeny bit of attention to what they wore after junior high. Most of the time, they chose to wear whatever was in the front of the closet or on top in the drawer. If something fit, they wore it to bed and then to class the next day. I wasted time in the early years trying to dress them for holiday photos when they could not care less. My sons want clothes for a holiday gift about as much as they want a spice rack.
4. Keep it moving. Not being particularly adept at sports, I was not adequately prepared for the constant kinetic need the boys each had from the moment they opened their eyes. They were happier when kicking, hitting or tossing a ball - any ball - or each other, and they proved they could turn any floor surface into a wrestling room. It's senseless to ask a boy to sit still; even up to the age of 18, he can't.
5. Loud is normal - and necessary. Some people live their lives at a higher decibel. My sons all did. They laughed louder than I ever dreamed possible - like hyenas on hormones. They also shouted often and walked up stairs as if they had cement barrels on their feet. They turned the music up in the car so high you could hear their favorite songs a half-mile away. It's not that I am a silent, dainty shrinking violet, but I grew up in a house with five siblings and my mother required mandatory quiet times. It could be just a zest for life that makes my sons this way, but I have learned I have to be as loud as my sons are. I shout their names, whistle, whoop, or clap like a circus ringleader to get their attention. Sometimes they hear me.
6. A quick look in your general direction will suffice. Boys can be affectionate to a point in public, and that point is usually about 6 years old. From then on, cuddle in private, but do not let on that you are related to them. I am not offended by this lack of PDA. I know I could sit in a humid gym watching a wrestling tournament for up to eight hours just to catch their six minutes of competition. Afterward they will walk past me trying to pretend they have the same emotional attachment to me as they do to a piece of gum stuck to the bleachers. A brief glance and a near-smile is about all they will do. I have learned you don't need a hug fest in front of strangers to feel their love.
7. They are masters of improvisation. My sons never needed or craved complicated store-bought toys or games. If the recreation had small parts, they were broken early on in their short life cycles. I wish I knew this before I spent good money on expensive distractions. Instead, my sons were MacGyvers of amusement. They tied a rope onto a skateboard and attached it to a bike, so one brother could tow the other down the hill. They made weapons out of toast for a morning duel. They made capes out of towels and dove off the couch and concocted a contest of how far out they could jump onto the concrete floor when launching from the top of the dryer. When I think about the cost of customized dolls my friends bought for their daughters, I know what a gift it was that my sons were cheaply amused.
8. Life is a contest. They will race to their rooms, see who can eat the most chicken wings in three minutes, and play dodgeball to the death. I am definitely competitive, but this perpetual quest for the win was far beyond my expectations. They will compare numbers of friends, test scores, birthday cards, height, weight, pull-ups, and size of muscles. They will compare haircuts, food portions, shoes, socks, jokes, beards, teeth color. Not that girls don't also strive to compete, but once at my sister's summer house, my boys had a knockdown about who would have the best-looking mermaid statue as a girlfriend.
9. You will get an honest answer. I have learned to be careful what I ask my boys. They will tell you they do not like your dress and that the color you just painted the walls resembles cat puke. They will also give a sincere compliment. I recall my oldest son telling me that I was as pretty as Mary Poppins. My youngest son had heard the compliment that someone looked "like a million bucks," so he told me as I walked out of the house for a date that I "looked like $7." From the way he was smiling, I believe he thought that was a lot of money.
10. They can fix things. OK, I kind of expected that each boy would be a natural Mr. Fix-It (and yes, that seems a little sexist), but my boys surpassed all assumption early on. I do what is needed and I can wield a glue gun and repair a multitude of shattered objects, but they can quickly put together bookshelves, bikes, vacuums, or desks without reading the instructions (sometimes that is not such a good thing). Because my own father and brothers were not particularly adept at fixing things, I am surprised they will look at a sagging railing and know immediately what to do. They love to fiddle with the contents of a toolbox and are very good with nailing, bracketing, measuring, painting, dry walling, plastering, and power washing. Not so much with the fine detailed work. Hopefully in the ledger of life, they will fix more than they break, because they definitely have learned how to do most of the reparations after breaking things and not wanting me to know.
11. They will exact rough justice. I believe a 10-year-old boy came up with the phrase "an eye for an eye." As I was raised with three sisters and two brothers, we always voted and discussed our conflicts. Now in our house, even at my insistence otherwise, there is no walking away, no backing down from a conflict, challenge, question, or perceived disrespect. No one can have the upper hand in anything, from who gets to sit in the front passenger seat to who finishes the gallon of milk. For many boys, forgiveness and compromise do not arrive as a workable concepts until the mid-20s.
12. Boy humor is different. Even if you believe in every strand of your DNA that humor is universal and all comedic tastes are acquired not innate, when you have a son - or three - you quickly realize that humor is gendered. From The Three Stooges to the Jackass franchise and every Chris Farley and Adam Sandler movie in between, boy humor is its own cosmos. Of course I am up for a good bawdy joke about sex or life peppered with some well-timed F-bombs, but not all the time and not exclusively. Perhaps their humor will grow more nuanced in time, but I have found that boy humor always involves recklessness, risk, humiliation, bodily functions, sex jokes, swear words, surprise, and injury. Don't believe me? Go to YouTube, type in "jackass," and see how many videos have more than 1 million views and thousands of comments from other boys urging them on.
13. Bro loyalty is forever. A son's love for his mother runs deep. Because I raised my sons as a single mother from the time they were 6, 4, and 1, they saw me as someone to count on, and they return the allegiance 1,000 times over. A son may not be as verbally expressive as a daughter, but he will show his love and loyalty daily in demonstrable, physical ways. He will shovel the driveway without being asked, he will carry every box and bag from the car to the house and the garage and back without hesitation. He will let you have the last egg roll when you know how badly he wants it, and he will offer to fill the gas tank when it is raining and you are tired. He will defend you to anyone and brag about your lasagna - every comment heartfelt with superlatives. I learned that a son will be chivalrous and considerate when you least expect such an outburst, and he will always remember to tell you he loves you on Mother's Day. After he eats, of course.
By Michele Weldon
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