W HAT IS IT WITH BOYS?”
many a mother has asked, trying to understand her son’s behavior.
Moms instinctively know how a daughter’s mind works, but as for their boys-------well, they seem to be wired differently. Biology plays a part: male hormones influence the development of boys physically from puberty onward and may also help shape their mental and emotional makeup. And then there’s upbringing. William Pollack, a Harvard psychologist, has observed what he calls the Boy Code-a set of behaviors encouraged by parents, teachers and coaches, and reinforced by peers.
“For example, our culture insists that boys be stalwart and stoic,” Pollack says, “rather than act lonely or sad or fearful.” In his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, he shows how the Boy Code extends to the way young males communicate their thoughts and feelings, an area that can especially confound mothers. So learning how boys think and act-and why-can make raising them easier. Here are some of their unique characteristics, and some reassurance for puzzled mothers.
He’s rough and tough.
No mother is surprised by her son’s boyish energy the constant running, jumping and yelling-but what about when it becomes aggressive? When Lisa Aulet of Belmont, Mass., enrolled her oldest son, age seven, in a hockey program, she was looking forward to cheering him on. What she wasn’t prepared for was the way the kids slammed into one another, knocking opponents to the ice or ramming them into the sides of the rink. Even more unsettling, her son was in the thick of it, giving as good as he got. “I’d always thought of him as my more quiet, intellectual child,” says Aulet, who has four sons. “But his rough play made me see another side of him.”
Most boys love to play rough, but it doesn’t mean they’re on the road to becoming roughnecks. In fact there are clear benefits to all that physical and competitive play. “Boys learn the limits of aggression, how far they can go safely without injury, how to be aware of others feelings,” Harvard’s Pollack says. “Boys who learn those limits are less likely to have temper tantrums or aggressive outbursts later.”
He has a violent imagination.
Boys’ physical aggressiveness has a corresponding mental aspect that also worries some mothers. Alarmed by media reports of violence in schools, their instinct is to keep toy guns and disturbing video games and movies out of their sons’ hands, so they won’t be tempted to violent behavior. But these moms discover that their sons' imaginations will often take over. Christine Texeira of Greeley, Cola., and her husband decided their sons Tommy and Johnny would have “no guns, no Nintendo.” They could wear pink if they wanted to. Christine hoped a “nonsexist” upbringing would be a gentling influence.
Then came Tommy’s second birthday. Opening a plastic tool set like his dad’s, he immediately picked up the drill, pointed it at Christine and said, “I’m shooting you, Mom.” Texeira, who majored in psychology and sociology, was trained to believe that boys and girls were really not that different. Experience, she says, has taught her “that was the furthest thing from the truth.”
Debbie Clement of Morrow, Ga., was surprised at how her son Kenny crashed his toy cars off a high wall and “tortured” his GI Joe. She was most disturbed by the pictures he drew: bombs bursting, bullets flying, tanks crunching buildings and people. “The violence in these drawings gave me pause,” Clement says. But she and Christine Texeira have little to worry about. Few boys go from violent imaginations to real violence. “We’d all have to wear lead vests if every kid who drew stick figures shooting each other grew up to be violent,” Pollack says.
Educator Barbara Wilder-Smith, with the Tufts University Program for Educa- tional Change Agents, spent a year observing boys’ imaginary play in an inner-city school, and found that even the violent scenarios played a positive role in development. Her report, “Harmonious Discord,” described how boys almost invariably built stories around shootings, fistfights, car crashes and other forms of violence. But once their stories ended, no violence followed. As one boy explained when a teacher objected, “But the bad guy has to die somehow!” In Wilder-Smith’s view, the boys were clearly learning the borders between real and imaginary, and to cooperate and work out the story together. Other experts, like psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, say that concocting these stories helps establish a moral compass-good triumphs over evil, courage finds its reward.
He doesn’t open up easily.
One day, when her son came in from school, Paula Duncan, of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, noticed he was upset. But he brushed by her without a word and went directly to his room. A girl who has been angered or embarrassed is likely to rush to her mother’s arms and tearfully blurt out her story. Boys generally try to work out their problems on their own, not wanting to appear to be “babied.” If you want to talk to boys about something that’s bothering them, says Pollack, try approaching the conversation indirectly while participating in some activity.
“When two women want to talk about something intimate,” says Barney Brawer, who co-directed a Harvard project on women’s psychology and boys’ development, “they’re likely to sit down, face each other and ask “How do you feel?’” Males often converse without looking at each other. “If you watch two guys, they’ll talk while doing something else, like watching a football game, and yet the most personal topics will come out, bit by bit, with never an embarrassing glance at each other.”
“A mother who helps her son fix his bicycle,” Brawer adds, “might learn more during casual conversation than she could ever squeeze out face to face across the dinner table.” Paula Duncan had learned this lesson. She wisely waited for her son to emerge from his room, then suggested they go for a ride. Sitting side by side in the car, focused on other things, his story about being teased at school slowly emerged, and she was able to help by just listening.
He wants to strike a deal
Women usually seek agreement based on each other’s feelings. Boys like to negotiate. ‘And they are good at it,” Brawer says. “They believe in fairness, they like to spell things out, and they like to see each side get a square deal. Then they shake on it. After they’ve reached an agreement, you often hear boys say, ‘Deal? Deal.’”
Moms know making a deal is only half the battle. With their short attention spans, boys can find it hard to keep commitments. Nagging doesn’t work, but other strategies can. Debbie Clement’s son Kenny had agreed to stop roughhousing on the living-room couch, but in his natural exuberance he kept forgetting. So she found a way to remind him. “Dear Kenny,” began the note pinned on the couch. “I used to think you were a friend of mine, but you don’t care about me. You’ve hurt me, sitting down so hard you made a spring break through my back. It’s all over between us. Your ex-friend, The Sofa.” The note made Kenny laugh, and remember his deal and his duty. For all the worry, headaches and heartaches, the bond between mothers and boys is real. “I miss coming home and finding my house occupied by an army, eating my food,” Rebecca Llenas of Tucson, Ariz., says now that her sons are grown. “I really miss the ringing phone. I miss the life my boys brought into the house. I really must be nuts.”
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August, 2000, (pgs. 116-120)
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