“You’re choking him.”
“He can’t breathe.”
“You’re hurting him.”
“Can you please. Just. Wrestle. Softly?”
Among the many things I say over and over as a parent, “wrestle softly” is probably the most ridiculous. My two oldest boys, ages 8 and 5, remind me of a newborn puppies, constantly nipping and swiping at each other in tumbling ball of boy. In the house, on the nice furniture, all of the time.
As a mother I am ill-equipped to deal with the live-action wrestling match that is our house. I grew up with six sisters in a home characterized by endless hair brushing, fashion shows, tea parties and crying. Sure, we had four brothers, but much like poor Rob Kardashian with his bro tanks and sock line, they were no match for the sugar and spice sprinkled in every corner of the house.
My daughter: I get her. Although it annoys me, a part of me sympathizes with her recent refusal to wear anything but her Minnie Mouse Halloween costume. It’s pink with ribbons and polka dots — and the skirt spins. I’d wear it if I could.
My boys: They mystify me. I’m baffled by the farting, the public urination, their Stars, both “War” and “Trek” (to quote “30 Rock”). One time I thought I was the best boy mother in the world because I had staged an elaborate Lego battle where the forces of Ninjago and Star Wars faced off. “Isn’t this fun?” I asked my oldest son, mentally high-fiving myself for being such a very awesome mom. “I guess,” he said, “but you really stink at sound effects.”
In fairness to him, I do. And I’m always holding the play weapons wrong, or confusing a pickle in baseball with football’s pick-six. So for this column I asked 10 women with boy-dominated households for help.
These are women I know personally and respect. Some have the wisdom of decades of parenthood, like my mother-in-law Maryann Andrus, whose seven boys are grown but still kindly stop by to take apart their snowmobiles on her lawn. Others are fully in the trenches of young motherhood, like Cedar Hills resident Lindsay Horne, whose five boys range from 8 years old to due-any-minute-now.
Every boy, every family is different, and what works for one mini-man may be totally ineffective with another. But here are some common themes I noticed in their advice on parenting boys joyfully:
1. Learn to speak their language
It’s important to take an interest in what interests your boys, whether it be watching all 100 billion “Star Wars” movies or sitting through that loooong football game. Learn the secrets of Spinjitzu if your boy’s a Ninjago fan, or invest in a good air mattress if he’s a happy camper. Do whatever it takes to show that he matters.
2. Talk on their terms
If little girls babble a mile a minute, little boys mostly grunt. “Welcome to the world of one-word answers,” said one friend. She was quick to point out that boys do want to talk, but on their own terms. The trick is to be ready for the floodgates to open at the most inconvenient times, and then to drop everything when they do. Several moms mentioned that bedtime is an ideal time for cuddling and conversation. And you can’t beat one-on-one time for tender talking moments.
3. Feed them!
Not to sound all Dr. Laura about it, but structured mealtimes can be an emotional need for little boys as much as a physical one. The food doesn’t have to be gourmet, it doesn’t even have to be homemade — as long as your boys know those Taco Bell soft tacos came straight from your heart. Even better, teach them how to cook a dish or two. Then let those healthy family dinners have a Pavlovian effect over time, reminding grown boys with families to come back every once in a while on a Sunday evening.
Multiple moms talked about the importance of teaching boys to respect others, particularly women. This can be taught by both example and instruction, as in: “You see that mom struggling to get four kids to church? Go hold the door open for her.” All children thrive with discipline and boundaries. Boys will be boys, sure, but it’s never OK to be mean or rude. One mom makes her children stand in the corner and count to 100 when they disobey (imagine the math skills!). Another family has a rule that if you fart at the dinner table, you have just volunteered to do the dishes.
5. Give them physical affection
An affectionate punch on the arm will do in a pinch, but boys need to be hugged, kissed, snuggled and praised every bit as much as girls do. Tell them you love them, and tell them again, and then say it a third time for good measure. There’s no such thing as spoiling a boy with your love, your affection or your time.
6. Teach them to work … hard
Starting as young as three, give your boys weekly jobs and work alongside them. Make sure to throw in some hard tasks, so that they can feel the joy of accomplishing something difficult. One family I interviewed purchased a farm so their boys would have somewhere to sweat. Not everyone has a farm, but every family with boys has a pee-stained toilet. “When they go work for someone else, I want them to be the hardest workers there,” said one mom. Also, motivate them to love learning and to set ambitious goals for the future. Boyhood is the time to dream big.
7. Be their biggest fan
If your boys enjoy athletics, cheerlead away. But don’t expect them to love the same sport you do — or any at all — and don’t feel the need to sign your kids up for everything the city rec department offers just because the neighbors are playing. Several moms said it’s important to help boys develop non-athletic interests. That way they can still learn confidence and be passionate about something if the starting quarterback position goes to someone else.
8. Emphasize the outside world over the virtual one
Do everything you can to manage the media in your home, with passwords, filters and good, old-fashioned “no-ways.” To stop endless requests for “free iPad time,” give boys plenty of time and space to play, build and explore. (Think building blocks and sandboxes.) When the wrestling indoors gets too intense, point to the door, but don’t expect to be able to stop it completely. One friend said she thought the rough-housing and silliness would stop when her boys got older. Sadly (happily?), it hasn’t. So enjoy it as best you can, protect the babies and the nice furniture, and remember that oh-so-wise saying: “It’s funny until someone gets hurt. And then it is freaking hilarious.”