Emotions have been running high in our home lately. Going back to school after two weeks off is no doubt a jarring experience (for everyone involved), yet it’s clear to me that both of my boys are trying to cope with new uncharted territory in their little worlds.
Mostly, it’s that their little worlds are getting a little bit bigger every day, and with this, come some valuable yet tough lessons. The most significant one being the realization that the world outside our home does not always play by the same rules. Ouch.
For Owen, my Kindergartener, this means unkindness and attention-seeking behavior have a place in the workings of the universe, beyond the typical and familiar micro-aggressions that play out between two brothers very close in age. The other night he started sobbing, uncontrollably, for an hour straight before I could finally get him to tell me that a child in his class called him “fatty”. Which, apparently, to my gangly, tall, slender child is the ultimate insult. (I willed myself, with every fiber in my being, not to laugh). But the insult itself is beyond the point. I realized, it was the slight, the unkindness itself, the intention of another child to deliberately hurt another that had gotten Owen so unraveled. But the fact that he had such a hard time telling me this is what got me so unraveled. It was his visible shame in feeling such big feelings and the true reluctance in expressing it. It got me.
For Jude, my four-year old, it involves trying to decode and make sense of what it actually means to “act like a big boy”. Just this morning, he woke up crying after having a bad dream. As I hugged him and tried to console him he says, between choked tears, “Why do they say ‘You better not cry’ in that song? In that Santa song?” I thought to myself for a moment before settling on the lyrics You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why…Oh my little love. Even Santa sends the message that it’s not okay to cry. All of these big feelings our little ones experience and our world tells them it’s unacceptable to express these feelings, other than in the form of words. Tears will not do. “Use your words” we say. Boys especially carry the weight of this, being told they are not acting like a “big boy” if they cry.
In our home, I would like to think the meaning we attach to acting like a big boy has more to do with helping our children gain independence, doing things for themselves they are now able to do. I do know we say “use your words” at least daily- mostly to avoid full out physical brawls, but also because I believe in encouraging this once our children have the verbal abilities to do so. We encourage risk taking and give our boys a lot of space- hovering is certainly not our thing. But I also realize, with risk taking, especially in the physical arena, we are dealing with a lot more bumps and bruises and tumbles and scrapes. With these minor inflictions, come tears and our insistence to “brush it off”, get back up and move on with things. And while I believe in teaching our children how to work through physical pain without falling to pieces, I wonder if we are sending the wrong message when we celebrate the times our boys have appeared “tough”, claiming they are really acting like such big boys. Perhaps in our dismissal of dramatic displays of physical pain, we are also dismissing the expression of emotional pain. Are we doing this because we really believe it or because it is an expectation our society has placed on boys in particular? And, if we are aware of the cultural norms which constitute typical boy behavior, do we acquiesce to such norms, in efforts of better preparing our children for the “real world” or do we chart the path in establishing our own little counterculture in our homes, with a keen awareness of the social implications of doing so?
Somehow, the counterculture idea is so much more manageable when your children are little. We can create a place where they can try new things without fear of rejection or ridicule, a place where they can exercise their growing independence in their growing little bodies, a place where kindness is practiced- most of the time. We can create a place where faith, hope and love are not lost, on most days, in the frenzied energy of our daily comings and goings. As my yoga teacher says, we try to “work from the foundation, not from the edges.” And from this foundation, we try to instill in our children a true feeling of worthiness- a worthiness that comes from being a child of God, worthy of love and acceptance regardless of who society thinks we should be or how we should act, according to our gender, or ethnicity or __________ (fill in the blank).
But then, they enter school. They spend the majority of their days in a place outside the safe and predictable confines of home and they become increasingly aware that “house rules” mean different things to different people. Maybe they learn that being “a big boy” is less about using your words and more about being tough – and being tough means keeping those big feelings inside, deep enough below the surface that it appears as if they aren’t even there. I don’t want my boys to inherit this idea, an idea still reinforced through popular media.
I want my boys to be tough, resilient- in the same way I want my nieces to be. I want them to learn how to push through setbacks without crumbling to an indistinguishable blob of tears. But I want them to also know that it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel sad and hurt and it’s okay to let these feelings bubble to the surface, especially with a trusted loved one. I want them to know all of their feelings are valid and not something to be ashamed of.
I want these “house rules” of ours to apply everywhere, at all times. I desperately want them to extend beyond the early years when our children are little. Yet, this is not the case. This is not the way the world works. I know this. Kids will be mean. Gender stereotypes remain. My child will be the one calling names, at some point, to show his peers how tough he really is and he will make fun of another tearful child, a boy most likely, for not acting like a “big boy”. I am at least a partial realist. And yet, the work we do as parents is so very important. We are building the foundation of our children’s being, even though it seems invisible at times. A foundation which will allow our children to recognize their mistakes and go about making them right.
So I will continue to tell my little boys that their big emotions are welcome and acceptable and I will no doubt continue to swim upstream in my efforts. I will be more conscious of the context when tempted to applaud my children for being “big boys”, perhaps searching for better language to narrate and celebrate their growing independence. Some days I will be tired and inevitably flail about, missing the mark, only to get up and try again the next day. But on most days, I will keep my eye on the prize, on my intent on shaping my little boys for the world I hope for, not for the world that is. I will continue, with all my might, to operate from the foundation, not the edges and pray that maybe, just maybe, my boys will learn what it really means to be a big boy.