Last year, when neighbours asked if I could look after their 5-year-old son every afternoon after school, I agreed readily. N is a likable little boy, and my daughter, also 5, enjoyed playing outside with him. She’d had a number of little friends over for playdates, and so I thought I knew what was in store.
Ha! I have two little girls, and all those playdates were with little girls. My extended first-hand experience of boys is pretty much limited to a nephew who is decidedly more active than his sister and his two girl-cousins, but, being as reluctant as the next product of the 1970s to step away entirely from the idea of gender as a social construct, I was chalking that up to personality.
Now, though, I’m not so sure. My first indication that things might be a little challenging came a few days before school started. N ran up to my daughter on the street with his soccer ball and asked her if she wanted to play. “Sure! Let’s pretend the ball is a baby and—” Swift kick to the baby’s head! It took some persuading to convince her that he hadn’t committed an atrocity, but had simply used the ball for the purpose for which it was intended. Mine isn’t a house of Barbies and princesses, and we do sometimes kick a ball around, but I was starting to realize that things might be a little different with a boy around.
And then the N afternoons got started. By the end of the first afternoon, I was completely frazzled. He was in constant motion, into everything. My daughter had a black eye (accidental), and I needed a stiff drink. Over the weeks that progressed, he climbed the rickety, rusty fence in our backyard—something that had never occurred to my daughters; scaled a wire fence to get into the neighbours’ yard (again, new to the playtime repertoire, but my daughter eagerly scrambled over after him); bolted into the street repeatedly without looking; devised numerous very active games in the house. Injuries were frequent—I had to declare the basement off-limits because the floor is concrete and I had visions of small heads crashing down on it. Within a couple of weeks, I had one goal each day: to keep him alive until his parents got home. Bonus points if he wasn’t bleeding. Indeed, it often felt like N and I were at cross-purposes: he was on mission self-destruct, and I was trying to thwart him.
I’m still sheepish about resorting to stereotypes—true, my daughter’s participation in soccer is usually reluctant, but some of her female friends play with gusto. Meanwhile, some of the little boys we know—including N’s brother—like to spend a lot of time colouring and working on crafts. And yet, and yet, whenever I mention my experiences with N, especially to parents in families with at least one of each, there’s sage nodding about the different energy levels.
I got used to those energy levels (and I also figured out the N trick: if I sat down with a book and started to read aloud, all motion ceased and he was transfixed). This year, I miss having N around. I loved the impact he had on my daughter. With N, she runs, jumps, and somersaults more than when she is left to her own devices. Coming to compromises about games they could both enjoy was useful (and even better were the imaginative games they devised together). Most of all, though, it was a lovely friendship. This year, she found the transition to grade 1 overwhelming, and for the first couple of weeks, the only way we could get her to go into school was with N. Off they went, morning after morning, hand-in-hand through the big doors.
The other benefit: this year she has made friends with a classmate who makes N look like a sloth. Playdates with him have been an adventure, to say the least. I shudder to think of what a shock he would have been to my system if N hadn’t helped break me into the world of boys!
Kelly Quinn, the mother of two girls, lives in Ottawa.