Why we must change the way we think about boys and allow our sons to go with their hearts
When my now thirteen year old son was a toddler, he was fascinated by trucks and other construction equipment. He also loved dinosaurs, but since we rarely saw them whilst out running errands, we focused mainly on John Deere. Whenever we were out he, or I, would point out whatever (specific) truck we saw. I learned the correct names because my son insisted on specificity. “Mom, that’s a digger truck not a backhoe.” “Right, sorry bud.” This game became such a force of habit that I found myself calling out “Ooh, digger truck” when my son was home and I was with adults on the way to dinner or a movie. Yes, I was that parent.
It was incredible, his obsession, and he had an impressive collection of toy trucks. He loved trucks so much, I’d often hear him in his crib, self-soothing at naptime by calling out “truck” intermittently as sleep took him. Occasionally, I’d wonder if that was odd, but I figured as long as he wasn’t saying the other word that it sort of sounded like, it was OK.
One day at the park, we brought our usual stroller full of trucks for use in the sandbox. This park also had a special digger seat for kids to sit on and handles to dig with. There typically were lots of over-heard conversations and negotiations. That day it was: “OK, Jacob, now you’ve had three tries, let’s give this other little boy a turn.” “NO!” “Jacob, we take turns.” Um, kids at two don’t take turns, you must divert, divert. “Theo,” I said, “why don’t you let Jacob play with your digger truck while you have a turn and then you can trade?” Jacob careened off the seat “I WANT DIGGER TRUCK!”
His mom and I started to chat, “Wow,” she said, looking at our giant yellow pile of Tonka. “Looks like your boy loves trucks. Maybe he’ll be a truck driver.” Can we aim just a little higher? I thought, I mean driving trucks is a worthy profession, but he’s two, let’s go for engineer maybe, something else tangentially related to trucks, no? I smiled the pinched smile of the mom who just got back-handed by the stranger mom; it was a thing in playgrounds. An unpleasant one-upmanship that might as well have been the middle school, “OMG, look at her hair?!” I always hated it. “Maybe he will,” I said. And then I walked away. And from then on, the traditional male roles were stamped on my boy over, and over, and over again. And he blew them out of the water, over, and over, and over again.
He grew. Fast and tall. The next stereotypes came fast and furious and continue to this day. He is now six feet tall, at age thirteen. He has been above the 100th percentile for height in his age group since he was four months old. At four years old, a well-meaning but traditional thinking person met him and said, “Wow, what a tall young man you are. Do you play basketball?” “Basketball?” my son said the word like it was spicy and unpleasant on his tongue “No. I do science.” That’s my boy, I thought.
Later, we signed him up for soccer, all of us, him included, thinking, well, a sport would be fun. And he liked some of it. Except the competition, and the games, and the uniform. He loved running around the field, hiding by the trees and looking for frogs and bugs and snakes. He lasted one season. He played goalie and only enjoyed the time spent outside with his friends at practice. The games were too competitive and the whole losing thing, especially when his teammates got mad about it, not for him.
So, he went to science camp. Jackpot. And he went to science museums and did owl pellet dissection kits and dinosaur dig kits and we videoed him doing running commentary of these experiments. We went on bird watching walks and hikes and swam and went camping. He became who he wanted to be, a reader who loved science who happened to be built like a professional basketball player in training (or, you know, a truck driver).
In addition to always loving trucks, he always loved dinosaurs, and drawing. From age three, he’d play act dinosaur gatherings, making sure to never mix from the Cretaceous period and the Jurassic. I always made those mistakes, but he’d correct me. He has wanted to be a paleontologist since age five and/or a paleo-artist and despite having dysgraphia is a remarkably talented and accomplished artist with a closet full of sketch books and portfolios. He has already, at thirteen, researched the top paleontology undergraduate programs in the United States, knows where he will apply, has his safety schools, and then his fallback plan, which is marine biology, because, you have to have a Plan B, he says. Nowhere is there professional sports or anything to do with trucks.
When I first found out I was having a boy, I thought, OK then, I guess I’ll be a soccer mom. I had that preconception. I expected him to love to read, to be intelligent and interested in academia, but I also expected him to like sports. And the first time I saw him with a ball, to really try a sport, I thought, nope. And then I saw him with a microscope, with binoculars on a birding outing, with science books, at a museum examining fossils, and I knew.
And then I had another boy. And he might as well have been born with a baseball mitt on his tiny little hand and holding a placard that said. I’m right handed but I bat left and I can throw like a rocket. I will be a professional baseball player so get ready for a lot of busy weekends in the bleachers. And that’s how it’s been. With zero coaching, pun intended, from his parents.
My baseball son does not subscribe to the “there is no crying in baseball” mantra. He doesn’t go out on the field and bawl like a baby, but when he’s watching a game, and a player cries because he’s happy he won, or lost, my son tears up too. When the Seahawks won the Superbowl we all cried (both my kids were born in Seattle).
My youngest also tears up when he’s cuddling with me and he looks over and says “I love you so much, Mom. You’re the best mom ever.” He loves to read, loves science and animals, and is bright and creative. He just happens to be remarkably coordinated and to love sports. Hand him a ball, he’ll ask, “Oh, what sport is this?” You say “It’s called blah blah ball, and the rules are XYZ.” He practices it with you for five minutes and then he’s great at it. It’s quite astounding really. But baseball, that’s his game. Watching him play, now at ten after starting at four, it looks like real baseball. They turn two. They steal bases and I’ve even seen a pop-up slide. They wear eye-black. We live in Texas, and Little League doesn’t mess around, but he’s in a good league where parents who go nuts on refs, or their kids, get booted. It’s a “the goal is, teach good ball, and remember, we want to have fun, they’re kids league” even as it is competitive.
My boys are multi-dimensional. All boys are multi-dimensional. Let’s stop creating two-dimensional men by pigeon-holing boys as athletes (and therefore tough), or scientists (and therefore soft), or as truck-drivers (and therefore as, I don’t even know what). There is no one way for anyone to be. Man or woman. A person’s profession doesn’t define them. A person’s gender doesn’t define them. A person’s body type doesn’t define them. And sexual preference certainly doesn’t define them. Let’s allow our boys to become who they are because of what they strengths are, where their interests lie, and where their hearts lead them.
They were born to be who they are. They like what they like. They are good at what they are good at. And they are still so much more than just that.
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Photo courtesy of the author and Sherwood Forest Faire Youth Camp