No Boy Is an Island

I tend to follow Benee’s and the other Cocoamamas’ pieces about raising boys closely, without really daring to interject. The fact is that my own relationship with my mother—with all its glorious and inglorious extremes—has driven me to form some very firm opinions about how to raise my own daughter, but I’ve given far less conscious thought to raising my boy. I know I want him to be respectful of women (and everyone really, but especially women) and kind and service-minded but beyond that, the canvas has largely been blank.

My boy is challenging in a different way than my girl. He’s loud and impulsive, can’t sit still and concentrate for long periods of time, tests boundaries constantly and can be found bouncing off walls quite often. I’ve generally shrugged at his behavior and observed: “It’s all that boy energy!”

An incident last week started an avalanche of questions and thoughts in my head, prompting me to rethink my strategy. We have observed for a while that while my girl (who is 5) can accept a no as a no, my boy (who is 4) thinks no is his cue to start a maddening crying and whining campaign to get whatever it is he wants. My husband and I have had a long-standing rule about whining: We don’t negotiate with whiners. And so when he begins whining, I walk away: no explanations, no sympathy, no begging and cajoling.

I thought our rule worked well until the other day when my four-year-old turned to me and said: “Mama, how come when Mina (his sister) cries, you be nice to Mina and when I cry, you get mad and be mean to me?” And two beats later, his sister chimed in: “Yeah, mama, I’ve noticed that too!”

Ladies (and gentlemen): This question stopped me cold in my tracks. My boy, my beloved boy, was hurt because he felt that he was being mistreated. That he was being treated unfairly. And, at 4, he is not necessarily connecting the dots of varied causation: that he gets no sympathy because he cries mostly when he’s whining whereas she gets sympathy because she cries mostly when she has hurt herself. All he knows is that when he cries, we get stern, and when his sister cries, she gets sympathy.

And we are not connecting those dots for him. We’re just expecting him to get it, to intuit the difference in treatment, and to be a boy and get over it. There is a lot of emotional nuance, most of which is not being explained in the way it needs to be.

I went in search of more information and found this blurb in Dan Kindlon’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, which really resonated with me:

There is plenty of reason to be concerned: a confused young boy grows into an angry, emotionally isolated teenager, and, predictably, into a lonely, middle-aged man at risk for depression … Boys need an emotional vocabulary that expands their ability to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression. They need to experience empathy at home and at school and be encouraged to use it if they are to develop conscience.

All this is not to say that my boy is now going to be coddled and get his way when he whines. But I intend to be more expressive about why I’m not sympathetic to the whining, about how much he is loved, how sad I am when he is hurt, how much compassion I feel for him when he is frustrated or angry. He may still be one hyper bundle of pure boy energy, but surely he is just as deserving as his sister of the emotional exchanges that come with the childhood hurts and tantrums.

When did we sign this silent pact that our boys are to be islands, cut off from the same emotions and connections we provide so freely to our girls? I don’t know how and where it all got started but I, for one, am out.

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