Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The boy is father to the man

As a boy, it's interesting listening to Erin and Kristin talk about raising boys. Even though they sometimes drift into their She-Woman-Man-Haters-Club schtick, they touch on a point of interest for me: the gender bias in education. The bias is the result of many overlapping and intersecting factors, but whatever the cause, as the parent of a boy, it's a concern.

It also raises an interesting point about my own early schooling. One of my former classmates recently started a group for our elementary school on Facebook and people have been posting class photos, and looking through the years, I am reminded that we had a balanced mix of male and female teachers. Because our class was always so large that we were split between two teachers, I ended up only having one of the male teachers, but they did share in my teaching since we would switch between classrooms for various topics, all go on field trips together, and so forth.

Speaking of school pictures can we talk for a moment about child clothing fashions from the 70's? OK, that's a whole 'nother story, but those clothes...I'm just sayin'.

Maybe having that male presence in school made the difference, but maybe not, since I was only at school seven hours of the day. Greater influences were Mom and Dad, who were so worn down experienced from raising my five older siblings that they gave me some latitude to be myself, even if that meant I wasn't following the pursuits they would have chosen for me. It wasn't so much a matter of letting boys be boys, but of people are people.

Yes, I did regular boy things--I played army, loved playing and watching sports and listened to far too much heavy metal and punk rock--but I also loved theater, writing poetry and cooking and baking. Mom and Dad met me wherever I was--at the soccer field or in the kitchen--no matter what their personal preferences were for me.

Beyond that, they would extend themselves to learn about my interests or behavior, which they did for all of us kids. After Mom died, Brother #2 discovered a Townes Van Zandt CD on top of her stereo cabinet. He knew that he had recently mentioned Van Zandt to Mom, and so she must have gone right out and bought the album and listened to it. Part of Mom's reason for doing that was that she always loved music, but another part was that she loved her son and wanted to hear what he was hearing.

Other than asking once if I wouldn't rather be an economics major--I'm sorry, have you forgotten all of my math grades from high school?--they consistently supported my interests, to the point of driving to Montana to see a show that I was production manager for. OK, it wasn't hard to convince Mom to come, since the show was in Glacier National Park, but still, she came. Likewise, when she came to visit me in Colorado, Mom hiked up to the Devil's Causeway, even though a thunderstorm was threatening.

This all required not insignificant efforts from Mom--Dad died before most of this happened--but she kept at it for me and my five siblings. Similarly, I've had to make efforts to meet 3B where he is--how many times can I play jump around before I puke? how many times can I say, "don't put that truck/lovie/fiddle in your butt" while I'm changing his diaper? how many times can I ask him to put his coat on because it's colder than...well, it's really cold outside, only to have him say, "I want to be cold"?

The answer is, endlessly, because while it's sort of funny to complain about and yes, sometimes mildly irritating or nauseating to me, it's who 3B is, and I love him.

However, all of these efforts require us parents to set aside part of ourselves, to get uncomfortable and to give up our way of doing things to do them the way someone else does. None of that is easy. My small efforts haven't been easy, and I can't imagine what it takes to do something like drop a child off at college and drive hundreds of miles away, leaving my child in the company of hundreds of hormonal strangers. But, I hope that by the time I get to that point, it will be an incremental change, not the revolution that it appears to be now.

I also don't know what it's like to be a woman raising a boy, but it broke my heart to hear the Manic Mommies talking about never having understood boys, not understanding boys now, and likely never understanding boys--that they would just have to learn to tolerate them.

I'm not saying that parents have to remake their personalities in the form of their children's, but it seems to me that there could be some more flexibility. For god's sake, we make our kids sit still, stay quiet, mind their manners, follow the rules and take endless car trips during which they're strapped in place for hours on end. Is it asking so much that we try to meet them where they are, do what they want to do? That we try out what they're doing, even if it stretches us out a little?

I used to respond to 3B's requests for me to play the guitar by saying that "Daddy doesn't know how to play the guitar. Mommy does." And that would always take the wind out of his sails, mid-concert. Finally, one day I said, "OK," grabbed the guitar and started strumming away just like he does, and he loved it. Now I play with 3B whenever he asks, although these days he's becoming more of a solo act, and I love it as much as he does, even though I still am the Mayor of Suckville on the guitar.

I assume that if we have a girl next, I'll be out of my comfort zone more often, but I hope that I'd embrace that and get beyond it, just like I hope the Manic Mommies can get past their discomfort with their boys, which probably has something to do with the fear of the unknown, just like my unease with guitar playing did. As I biked up and down the trail to the ranger station in Colorado that I lived in for a summer, I came up with some axioms based on mountain biking. One of them is that the only way through fear to to go through it and come out the other side.

Sure, you may end up sliding off the edge of the trail, down the mountain toward the waterfall, scrabbling for handholds and trying to snap your shoes out of the pedals, but you've gotten through your fear. Now that your fear is behind you, the world is open to you once again...granted that you survive, that is.

What about you? How do your kids challenge your sense of self?

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  1. Parenting experiences are as different as children are. I am glad to hear that your mother could travel the world to see you. Mine somehow missed out on doing that for me, even when I lived relatively close to her. When I was growing up, we all did things together, which allowed for few individual pursuits, such as sports. Things must have changed after I moved out.

    I have heard other mothers complain of "testosterone poisoning" that affects their boys about age 13, and I have not made it that far yet. My boy is far more cuddly and physicallly loving than his sister, which is not a boy/girl thing, but a different temperments thing. Most mothers I have heard kvetching would rather help a boy than a girl through puberty.

    For the moment, the only University that has sent a letter of acceptance to our house is less that two miles from home, so it will be a pretty quick drive back for all those thoughts. If I send her farther away, she will have an aunt nearby whichever way she goes, which eases the separation, as does her maturity. I raised her to be independant, so I should not be disappointed when she exhibits that trait.

    Another thing to love about those really little kids, they do not know what they can't do yet, like we adults know. He also does not know that you can't play guitar, so long as you play it better than he does. His ear is not as refined as yours to the music of the instrument, only to the love he hears when you join him.

    On the other hand, it is a great mistake to think that one must do well in math to do well in Economics. It is a social science, not an extension of math class. Accounting is math, and bean counting was a boring class, which I took even though it was not required.

  2. Hmmm. Maybe the problem with "I'll never understand boys" is in the framing of the question. If there's something you don't understand about a person--and there are many things for one person not to understand about another--is it because of that person's gender? Or age? Or ethnic group? Or cultural background?

    Sometimes when you step back and examine your perception of the cause of the misunderstanding, it helps your understanding reach a different level.

    A follow-on question is whether you really want to understand someone else anyhow, but that's a topic for another day.

  3. CAGirl: So far I've heard moms worrying about raising girls through puberty and dads worrying about doing the same for boys. I think we're scared of what we know, which is unusual, but then again, these are all parents who are looking ahead to puberty, so they're still scared of what they don't know. I suppose that we'll see when we get there.

    MrJ: My snarky response is, "I don't understand you." My other response is that you said more clearly in four lines than I did in four pages what I meant. Perhaps I don't understand myself.

  4. I think with parenting, it's a struggle & balancing act of getting them to/expecting them to mind their manners, sit still, be quiet....while still allowing them to express & show us who they are and what they want.

    I may be the completely passive parent at times and let him have his way too much. I admit this about myself & my parenting. Play "army dudes?" Okay... Put M&Ms in our yogurt for breakfast? Okay. (why not? Quaker now makes chocolate chip "breakfast cookies"...M&Ms in yogurt can't be AAALLL bad, right?)

    With regard to the gender expectations on little ones... Hubby & I struggle with this. When Gage wanted a baby doll, I got him one. When Gage was pushing the pink stroller at a Christmas party 2 years ago, I didn't flip out about it, but rather, flipped out when a knuckle-head at the party made a comment ABOUT my son pushing a pink stroller. But, when Gage wanted Dora shoes---I found myself completely torn. I wanted to be this mom that said it didn't matter that he liked the shoes, and putting societal expectations of gender norms on my toddler aged son was wrong... but...I didn't want him (...read: me) to experience drama at the casa de Lainey Paney about my son wearing "girl shoes" that were decked out in pink/purple/flowers & Dora.

    I want to be the kind of mom who buys a CD of music because it's what my son is listening to.
    I want to be the kind of mom who travels across the world to see something that my child has created &/or is proud of...

    My mind could keep going down this road of what kind of mom I want to be...but it would take too long to write it all down. Maybe I'll save that for a post of my own!

  5. Yeah, it was cute to watch 3B stroll through Target with his pink sequined purse, but I don't know what I would have done had we bought it and he ended up strolling around in public with it. I know it's more my unease with people's reactions than it is his that's a factor here, but it's still hard to get around. A large part of it is that I don't want to be confronted by a knuckle dragger about it--don't dis Papa Bear's cub, bub!

    And hey, I want to be that kind of dad too, but I remind myself that Mom had freedoms at that point in her life that I may not have at that point in my life. We'll all do the best we can with what we've got.

  6. Reading my sister's comments make me think I had different parents than her, or perhaps she just has a different perspective. I know mom came to see me when I was having kids (I never made a play for her to watch, just babies) however she was invited. As I got older, I realized how she functions, very old school. She would never come visit someone and stay in their house, even if invited to do so. Invitations were important. She would not go to her mother's house for Thanksgiving if she were not invited by her mother.

    L-P if he is wearing those Dora shoes in the store, you can respond to him much the same way I respond to my kids, on pretty much anything, "Enjoy them here because they are not going home with you." If he throws a fit you can use the more sensitive response (my kids got this when they were older) "oh, you poor thing, will you die if you don't get it?" "Yes (sobsobsob)" "Then I will miss you!"

    I am wondering (daily at this point) how to raise a boy loaded with ADHD and Anxieties as he hits puberty, since he is now 13!! His doctor pointed this out to me at our last appointment as she sat back and tried to look sorry for me. He is more sensitive than most girls I know including myself. Okay maybe I am not sensitive, just protective of my cubs.

    My parents raised me to be an individual, to persue the things in life that would make me happy, to learn that failure is not an endall, and that successes should be celebrated. Hopefully, in some way I have passed that on to my own kids (two of which are now adults.) I can see that my kids all learn differently and I am constantly at school rallying for them, or supporting them in their endeavors. I already had to move one child out of a class with a toxic teacher (read: huge personality conflict... she said she was the boss of him, and I have raised him to be the boss of himself.)

    It is always good to try on someone else's shoes, and even better when they can try on yours too. That is what makes a good friend.

  7. Anonymous9:58 PM

    Sorry, I read this post before but never responded. Something about some minor holiday came up and I got distracted....

    I don't understand the idea of framing the question that way, as Mr. Jumbo said. I don't approach my son as "a boy" all the time, though obviously that is one aspect of him. If I see a behavior I don't like -- jumping from the couch to the arm chair, for example -- I don't look at that activity and think, "Gee, he's such a boy, and I can't relate to that."

    Maybe having a daughter as well helps with that. She wields a light saber just as proficiently as her brother, and as I've mentioned before, her brother shares her love of all things pink and sparkly. So I get to see right up front how complex people they are, and how irreducible they are to things like gender.

    As for your question about them challenging my sense of self -- I never considered myself to be self-centered or selfish, but I do often find it challenging to remember that these young humans have not really learned to think of others first, and don't always look where they're stepping, and sometimes they step right on my tired little toes. So to speak.

    Your description of playing the guitar with 3B is the perfect example of how we can get out of our own way and just be with our kids. My small self, the one that carries all the wounds and needs and whines incessantly in the background, is the one that cannot meet my children where they are. My big Self is the one who's always standing ready to give love and compassion, if only its little cousin would get over it.