Stay Gold, Ponyboy. (Teaching our Boys to Read and Write)

IMG_1094Boys don’t like to read.  Watch the messages that they’re given.  Boys play sports, and wrestle, and play video games.  Girls read; just look at the early reader chapter books:  Judy Moody, Ivy and Bean, & Junie B. Jones.  When X was in first grade, we got a scolding by his teacher, because the books he read (Harry Potter, Captain Underpants, and Percy Jackson) were too violent for six year olds.  When I asked her what else he should read, she didn’t have an answer for me.

X is a reader.  He laps up books; can’t get enough of them.  He reads big, fat, complex books without pictures.  And, we can’t keep up with him.  We could have worse problems (as the librarian often tells us)  but it’s not easy to manage the content of his reading.  Because, given the option, his interests lie in the violent, unrealistic world of mythology and fantasy.  And, he refuses to read anything else.  Piles of books will go unread as he reads and rereads the same Percy Jackson book.

So, I took The Outsiders out from the library.  The book that changed my pre-teen years.  The book that I couldn’t put down, that I sat and cried through as I reached the end before school in Ms. Collins 4th grade classroom.  The book that taught me about empathy, and compassion, and how words can be beautiful.

And it sat there, at the foot of the stairs, for weeks.  Finally, I brought it to X’s room and said, “Listen, this book is important to me.  And, it’s violent and intense, and you can watch the movie when you’re done, and just try the first chapter.”  He begrudgingly closed the graphic novel he was reading, and said that he’d give it a try.

An hour later, I snuck upstairs and he was still reading under his covers well past his bedtime.  He was already leaving the drive-in, and I realized that I had to clarify some things.   I had to show him what a madras shirt looked like, and tell him they were “soshes” not “socks” and that things were going to happen that we’d need to discuss.

Two days later, he stuffed it in his bag to “finish it at school” and I felt like I had to warn him that I bawled at my desk when I was ten.  He left it at home.  The next day he asked me who my favorite character was.  And I asked him: what role each character took in the book; what would have changed if Johnny didn’t have the knife; what did people think about Greasers, was it true;  what did Johnny mean when he told Pony to “stay gold”.

And we talked about the power of writing.  Why it was important for Pony to write down his story.  And how writing can be a powerful, healing experience.

I hope Xavier never forgets these lessons, and he carries his love of reading throughout his life.  When things get hard, or scary, or confusing he can turn to the written word for knowledge and comfort.  That he can always see the sunsets, and that he always stays gold.

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Are My Sons Sexist? Now what?

1016542_10203669089862778_501968467938076736_nI first noticed it this summer.  While watching American Ninja Warrior, the boys consistently rooted for the women competitors to fall and didn’t believe that a woman could ever complete the very physical obstacle course.  I ignored it, knowing that, eventually, a competitor would prove them wrong.  When she did, and she roared in celebration, the youngest said that she was rude and obnoxious, despite the fact that the men in the competition crowed all the time.  Uh oh!

Then, while watching an interview with a female politician, I told the boys to pay attention as she “might be our next president.”  They laughed.  Laughed, because, “Mom, a woman can’t be president.”  Oh no!

Finally, the last straw.  In a conversation about their grandparents, both boys fervently believed that their grandfather was “much smarter” than their grandmother.  Maybe they valued practical knowledge over book smarts, or they responded to the authoritative way in which my father states his beliefs.  Or, maybe, we have a problem.

Hmmm…  Let’s try this experiment…. “Boys, who’s smarter?  Mom or Dad?”  Without missing a beat, with barely a pause, they both said, in unison, “Dad.  Of course.”  Well. There it is.  Because, while I have no desire to besmirch my very bright husband, I have no idea why the kids would think he’s smarter than me. I write, I read, we help with homework equally, we solve problems together.  The kids watch me work often, and have seen me be honored for my professional endeavors.  I rarely ask my husband to do something I can manage.  And, we generally eschew the traditional gender roles in our household.

Now what? I’ve written a lot about being a Mom of Boys.  I think hard about the responsibility of raising young men in this world.  I’m conscious of the things we say and do, and the messages that the boys receive.  And yet, the sexism still seeped in.

Media is a huge part of it.  How do you counteract the Brains vs. Babes episode of Wipeout?  And, how do you fight the basic conceit of Big Bang Theory; smart boy loves hot girl?  And cartoons, and graphic novels, and Disney, and princesses, and princesses, and princesses?  And maybe, subconsciously, there’s tons of messages that they receive at home and at school and in the world.

Sexism is everywhere.  Misogyny is everywhere.  How do we fight it?  I need to look harder for images of equality, and I need to share those images with my friends and with the school and with my community.  And, I need to continue being a role model to the boys, I need to continue to walk the walk. I need to show them, often, that girls can do anything boys can do.

Most importantly, I need to continue the dialogue, and I need to ask my husband, and my father and the men in my life to do the same.  It’s so important for all of us to point out inequality in the world and name it.  We need to help the kids see how the messages we see are often untrue.  We need to continually remind all the little boys and girls that gender does not determine worth.

The Boy and His Stuffies

100_1396  When Xavier was three months old, we couldn’t get him to sleep.  Every time we put him down in his crib he would wail and scream.  In a moment of desperation, we placed a little stuffed monkey next to him, just barely touching his little arm, and he slept.  The next day we put him down again.  Same thing, he wailed; put the monkey next to him, he slept.  Thus started his special relationship with Mono.

We were strict about stuffed animals when the kids were babies.  They stayed in their rooms, they didn’t come downstairs, they didn’t leave the house except for sleepovers.  We didn’t want the kids to get too dependent on any certain possession.  We didn’t want to get stuck in a situation where we had to turn the car around because we left a stuffy at home.  Didn’t really matter though, the heart knows what it wants.

100_3832Throughout the years the relationships with the stuffies have changed, and they’ve become a part of the family.  Each animal has it’s own personality, some have theme songs, all have their quirks.  Mono is the leader and the dad; Burpy is a trouble maker but always has fun ideas; Brownie is the golden child; Rosalita is a girl but she can pack a punch; Swinger is fun because he’s a guy but he likes wearing girl clothes and his favorite color is pink.  Moo moo is a bit of a pig (even though he’s a cow) he eats garbage and never showers.

Ed and my relationship with the stuffies have changed too.  Ed has never liked the stuffed animals and finds the boys relationships with them slightly disturbing.  I find that the animals act out behavior that is unacceptable to me.  “Xavier, if Burpy doesn’t quiet down and change his voice, everyone will get grounded!!”  We talk about when enough is enough with the animals; and when they’re too “babyish” and not “manly” at all.

But, I can see that the role playing is important to the boys development.  They play out social interactions with the animals that are hard and confusing.  When Clut Clut gets too rambunctious, he needs to have a “time out” to pull himself together.  When Burpy is mean, the other animals don’t want to play with him.  And, it becomes a lesson on how different friends (monkey, cow, bat, monster, dog) can all get along and love each other unconditionally.

As the boys get older, I see them moving away from their stuffies.  The play is more grown up and a little more violent.  The guys still play “school” but now, they also play “animal wars”.  And, the stuffies are getting old.  Mono is starting to take a back seat, looking a little matted and worn.  The boys have gone to their grandparents, and forgotten their animals at home.

photo (6)They’re growing up, and real relationships are starting to take the place of these make believe lives.  They’ve practiced these interactions and are ready to try the real world.  And when it’s not easy, and things don’t go their way, they’ll always have their guys at home who love them no matter what.

Ten Things to Tell Our Sons

DSC_0252As a Mom of Boys, I often feel like we’re failing our young men or, more importantly, ignoring their development entirely.  Raising our young boys into men, or menschs (to be exact) is incredibly important.  And, not just because if we raise our boys right our girls have less to worry about, but because if they’re half of the problem, they must be half of the solution.

1. First impressions last.  It’s important to pay attention to how the world perceives you.  It’s important to be aware that people make judgements of who you are based on how you present yourself.  Think about how you want the world to see you, and then act accordingly.  But, also never, ever, assume you know someone based on their appearance.  You must dig deeper.  You must try to avoid snap judgements and pre-conceived notions.  You’re life will be so much richer if you push past your initial biases and get to know people for who they are.

2. And don’t be afraid to show people the real you.  You can be independent and different from the pack.  You bring your own unique strengths to the team and the classroom.  Let people love you for you in all your beautiful weirdness.  Don’t worry about being cool or conforming to the team.  Be an individual and be strong in your individuality.  Your uniqueness is what makes you an indispensable member of the whole.

3. Life is not Youth Soccer.  You do not get a trophy for just showing up.  You will not be awarded for mediocrity.  There are winners and losers in life and you are not always going to win.  Therefore you must learn to be a humble winner and a gracious loser.  You might not always be the most talented athlete, or the best performer, or the smartest student.  And the world won’t always reward you for your effort.  But, you can be sure that you can take pride in the fact that you worked your hardest and put your best work into everything you do.

4. And, you can’t quit when things get difficult.  You can’t make excuses when things don’t go your way.  Mom and Dad will not always be there to kiss your boo boos.  You need to learn how to solve your own problems and overcome your own obstacles.  You need to develop your own internal locus of control.  Grit and resiliency will take you further in life than taking the easy way out.  You are in control of your life, your are responsible for your actions, you control your destiny.

5. About self-control.  Don’t be embarrassed by your emotions.  Don’t be afraid of tears or anger or fear.  But learn how to control these emotions and learn where they are appropriate.  And you should expect the same from those people around you.  You are allowed to excuse yourself from uncomfortable situations and you needn’t tolerate poor behavior from others.  Don’t let other people’s anger or meanness or sensitivity bully you into behaving in ways that make you uncomfortable.

6. Love who you want, and definitely follow your heart.  But always make sure your relationships are built on mutual respect and admiration.  And, never lose logic and pragmaticism as you embark on romance.  And never be with someone because you NEED them.  You are fine on your own, you don’t need another person to complete you or take care of you.

7. Take care of your body.  Eat healthy and be strong.  Get outside and keep moving.  Do not sit on the couch all day and play video games.  Be active and adventurous.  And, for the love of god, be clean.  There’s nothing more odious than smelly boy smell.  Do not be that guy!

8. Keep your hands out of your pants.  I understand that there’s plenty to discover down there, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  Do not let that strange appendage control your life.  God gave you a brain for a reason; use it!!

9.  Stand up for what’s right.  Have a voice and don’t be afraid to speak out.  Be the guy on the playground that sticks up for the underdogs.  Hold your friends to high standards and lead by example.  Always be empathetic to those around you and think before you act.

10.  Life is a most excellent adventure.  Develop passions.  Hold on to wonder.  Conquer your fears, overcome your obstacles and just dive in.