Boys and Education: Sometimes the teacher must be the student

I have a confession to make. In addition to being a great mother before I had children, I was even a better fifth grade teacher. I couldn’t understand why library books didn’t come back on time, I’d shake my head at a family’s disorganization and as embarrassed as I am to admit, I would harrumph, and roll my eyes at the “excuses” for homework not being done.

That was before.

I will also admit to feeling gob smacked when I learned that I was having a boy. And another. And then another. How could I, poster child for the girly-girl, have three boys?

Living with boys hasn’t come easy to me. It has been a learning process of how to best communicate with them and Dr. Leonard Sax’s book, Why Gender Matters, has been my instructional guide.

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“Did you know that most boys and men build friendships around activities and don’t really care to share their inner most feelings with each other?” I asked my husband, somewhat incredulously.

“Um, yeah,” he muttered back to me while absently staring at the tv and flicking through the channels.

“Did you know that most boys and men prefer to communicate shoulder-to-shoulder, you know, looking at problem together, rather than making direct eye contact?” I say this like it’s some sort of a revelation.

“Ya.”

“Okay, this explains a lot. Did you know that there are structural differences in the ears’ of boys and girls, and this guy is suggesting that sometimes boys have a hard time hearing their teacher and don’t intend to be disruptive?!”

“Sorry, what’d you say?”

And there you have it. My life with boys.

I read somewhere that women speak thousands more words in a day than men. In my case it’s true. I live my life according to a script.

“Wake up! Teeth brushed, beds made, clothes on! Knees off the table. Use your spoon. Dishes to the dishwasher . . . “

And when the boys are fighting, I am more likely to get into a discussion (albeit one-sided) about feelings and anger, and controlling impulses. Down on my knees, arms wrapped around each boy, sandwiching myself in between them, I talk. And talk. And talk. I’m usually there to intercede immediately after the first fist flies.

By contrast, the boys’ father will swoop into a room after the fighting has reached a level he has deemed too violent (usually just before or after bloodshed) and clip, “Enough!”

With that simple command, the boys will scamper to their respective corners, like lion cubs retreating after they’ve caused the leader of the pride to roar.

“You engage with them too much sometimes. Just say it once and mean it.” This is my husband’s advice. In fact this is how he lives his life. He keeps his sentences brief, and speaks when it counts. Years ago he told me that when someone talks to hear their own voice others would eventually learn to shut it out.

Dr. Sax would say that I should let the boys be physical and competitive because they are just doing what comes natural. He is quick to assert that doesn’t mean letting them pound each other to a bloody pulp or allow them to use violence to solve their problems, but that I should just back-off, and not make the jump to “Oh my God! They are going to grow up to be sociopaths if I let them pretend to shoot each other!”

But it’s hard for me. As a woman, I like to talk about everything and hash-it all out. My girlfriends and I will talk all sides of a story and debate tone and inflection until exhausted, we move on to another topic. My friends with daughters often remark how their little girls come home from school and they talk for an hour, getting the play-by –play: what the teacher wore, what so-and-so said, where they sat on the carpet and what the story was about. They will know the dynamics of friendships and whose feelings were hurt and who has made-up.

My boys come home and it’s like prying teeth to get them to share the happenings of their day. I have resorted to asking very pointed questions on our walks home from school, should-to-shoulder, avoiding direct eye contact. I used to think that they weren’t sharing things with me because they were embarrassed, or possibly nervous of my reaction, but no, I was reassured with a shrug of their shoulders and an, “Oh, I dunno. I forgot.

It’s important to note that my boys and I have a very close relationship and they will tell me their inner most secrets, but I’ve had to learn what’s news to me, isn’t news to them and like their father, they use fewer words than I do.

So what does all of this mean when it comes to the classroom?

I usually breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that my son’s teacher is a mom to a boy.

She gets it. I think.

I hope.

And usually she does. She usually gets that boys think fart jokes are hilarious, and that they generally like competition, even if it’s just with them. She gets that sitting for more than one-minute necessary can have a disastrous result. She gets that even when they don’t say anything, it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting, or needing help. She gets the nuances of being a boy.

And that’s what I didn’t get when I was a teacher. Make no mistake; I thought that I got it. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Can you really blame me?

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*Dr. Sax refers to gender and not “sex” differences. It’s an important distinction.

* Dr. Sax also writes about the disjointed messages our girls receive from society while growing up and how damaging they can be. Fascinating food for thought.

The Household Chores Debate: Don’t Keep Score

Having kids will automatically lower your cleanliness standards.

Having kids will automatically lower your cleanliness standards.

In his op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Case for Filth, Stephen Marche suggests the solution to the division of household chores is to simply do less and be happier.  Jessica Grose responded with the argument that men shouldn’t get to “punk out” when it comes to housework.

Oh, the housework debate.  For me, this is filed alongside the breastfeeding debate in the “Who Gives a Shit?” folder.

What do I mean by that?  It’s simple.  Whenever these studies come out about what our neighbours are doing, whether it’s how much sex they are having or how the chores are divided, we start to question our normal.  Is it normal that I do the majority of the day-to-day housekeeping and my husband does more of the “labor” jobs around the house?  Does that make me: subservient, a fool or a doormat? Is he boorish, a stereotype or a misogynist?

Questioning what’s normal is not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s often the impetus for change – and in this case Grose wants us to challenge what’s normal and put a broom in the hands of more men – but a quick informal survey of my friends reveals that “normal” varies from household to household.  Anything goes from dads doing laundry to moms cleaning out the eaves troughs.  Even the idea of cleanliness differs from household to household and so long as everyone’s on board, who cares what other people think?

Marches writes about the intimate drudgery that is housekeeping and marriage.  So true.  On my worst days, I will always make the bed.  Everything is right with the world when I can pull back the covers and get inside.  My husband has made the bed about the same number of times he has ironed a shirt – less than 10.  But don’t ask me to change the furnace filter.

Marche recalls that steamy scene in Mad Men when Meghan and Don pull off to the side of the road to have sex after leaving a dinner party gone awry where Don stripped off his shirt to fix a leaky sink.

I am reminded of the time we visited friends at their rental cottage.  While toasting another picture-perfect summer evening and waiting for dinner to be served, it was discovered that there was no longer running water indoors.  A small group of us stood around puzzled, not sure how to solve this problem, but my husband disappeared only to return wearing his bathing suit and with some tools he’d rummaged up.  Within minutes he was submerged in the lake affixing some thing-a-ma-jiggy pipe to some sort of doohickey.

While there was no Meghan Draper moment on the way home, I admit to feeling turned on and not because it was all macho-like, “Me man.  Me fix water pipe.  You woman.  You do the dishes.”

It was more a feeling of gratitude, or phew! someone on my team can fix water pipes!

The same way that I hope he feels about being married to someone who gets her thrills from organizing the mudroom.

Housekeeping can be a metaphor for marriage.  It’s messy, hard work, and everyone has their own way of doing it.

I beg to differ with both Marche and Grose.  It’s not about doing less or doing more, it’s about not keeping score.

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You could WIN!

This week, 4Mothers will discuss gender and housework and how things look to us.  We love it when you join in, whether to offer your own perspective or to simply say that you enjoyed a read.  Don’t be shy; drop us a line.  Leave a comment on one or more posts this week and you could WIN a home detox kit from Seventh Generation valued at $50!  (Canadian residents only)

Meet X, c. 2011.

Last week, the internet universe erupted with the story of baby Storm. Storm’s parents, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, have decided not to share Storm’s sex with anyone outside a small circle of people, most of whom were present at Storm’s birth, until such time as Storm and the family are ready to share.

Needless to say, the internet loves a controversy. First reported in the Toronto Star, Storm’s story has been featured in newspapers, blogs and twittered about around the world.

I admit, upon reading this story, that my first reaction was to be disturbed by the family’s choice. Even I, a child of the 1970s, whose gender consciousness was formed almost exclusively through repeated exposure to Free To Be, You and Me*, was confused. This just seemed like a truly difficult and uncertain means to put into practice something that parents have been trying to do for the last 40 years —  to allow their children to come into their own understanding of who they are, as free as can be from socializing messages of what “boys do” or “girls do”.

As the mother of two boys, I tried (admittedly, not perfectly) to allow them to develop their own understanding of who they were without too much interference. As toddlers and young children, they were allowed to explore, even when that meant wearing purple t-shirts, purple snow suits and kilts, kitchen sets and dishes for birthday presents, and, for a while, renaming obviously male body parts by their understanding of the female equivalents. Both of them played with the idea that it would be better to be a girl than a boy, and eventually came to where they are now. And it occurs to me that Storm’s parents were heavily influenced in their decision not to share Storm’s sex or gender by their experiences in raising his older brother, who undoubtedly went through the same age-appropriate exploration as did my own.

As open minded as we might have tried to be, it never would have occurred to us to present them, to the world, as anything but males.  They are clearly male, and they are both clearly boys, and they are who they are, in both cases, a work in progress. And  upon reading Storm’s story, and being reminded of both X-A Fabulous Child’s Story and Free to be You and Me and all those similar messages which permeated my own childhood,  and all of which were a product of the rise of feminism in the 1960s, it occurred to me that 1970s are long over. Those books, those references — they’re from a different time. Hadn’t we all moved on?

Judging by the outcry over Storm’s parents’ choice, apparently not.

And so, after reading Kathy Witterick’s explanation of her family’s choice in Sunday’s Star, I conclude that theirs is a brave choice. It’s not the one I would have made, but I hope (since I’m still somewhat skeptical) it is the right one for Storm.

*oh yes, and then there was this, which definitely left a mark.

Storm is a Tempest in a Teapot

Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, haven't told anyone, even their parents and closest friends the gender of the child.

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This is going to be short, because I think that the issue of baby Storm’s gender is a non-starter.  The question about the baby’s sex cannot stay hidden from the world.  It will come out.  (I have an awful vision of reporters circling the house, waiting for a diaper-changing moment, armed with telephoto lenses.  Or, god forbid, sneaking up to approach the siblings while they are playing at the park and getting them to spill the beans.)  Someone will want to exploit this viral story and be the one to break the news. 

When I first read this piece, and then saw how the story went viral, my response was to slot it into that category of stories that get legs because there is a 24-hour news cycle and the monster must be fed.  My response was largely a lack of interest because I was sure that the secret could not be kept.

Having read the mother’s thoughtful and intelligent response to the world’s overwhelming interest in having an opinion about her family, I am convinced that this story should go back to where it belongs: into the folds of that family, into the fabric of their own community, into the warp and weft of the myriad daily and private decisions that go into forming happy, healthy children.  They have made a reasoned, hopeful choice; let them live in the genderless bubble while it lasts.