“Your son,” a woman once told me after Mass, “is a bully.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised by this characterization of my normally well-behaved (at least in church) sons. “Which one?”
She told me that she had observed my three oldest boys, all altar servers, putting on their cassocks in the sacristy before Mass. The youngest was goofing around a bit, teasing his brothers and telling obnoxious jokes. Apparently, it was then that my oldest son corrected his younger brother’s misbehavior by telling him to shape up and . . . smacking him in the back of the head.
I stood blinking at my informant. Was that all? Yes, she told me, that was all my “bully” had done.
I decided not to tell that kind mother of three sweet daughters that I was secretly pleased with her report that my oldest son had kept his brothers in line during my absence. As a mom of five sons, I have come to appreciate some of the nuanced behaviors of these creatures we call boys. Pecking orders, physical reprimands, and a bit of in-fighting are simply part of the deal.
The privilege of being the wife of a man and the mother of both sons and daughters, however, has highlighted natural differences between the sexes for me like nothing else. We boys and girls simply do things differently — especially when it comes to feelings, words, and conflicts.
I’ll never forget the day one of my boys was struggling with his schoolwork. A literature assignment had him frustrated and on the brink of tears.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well, the book says to write two paragraphs about the emotions this poem evokes.”
“That doesn’t sound too hard,” I reassured him.
The boy held his head in his hands. “But I don’t do that!”
Those words have come back to mind many times since then, in dealing with my boys’ reluctance to verbalize their emotions. What my son told me that day was true. They really don’t do that. While my daughters turn readily to words whether they are happy, sad, angry, or excited, my sons are stingy with theirs. I don’t push them too hard, though. It’s normal. They get it from their father.
Soon after we were married, I overheard my husband having a phone conversation while making plans with a friend. His end of the conversation went something like this:
“Yeah . . . Right . . . Great . . . Uh-huh . . . Yup . . . Okay . . . See ya.”
And then he hung up.
How could he be so rude? What I didn’t know then was that what sounded like rudeness to me was simply how men communicate with one another. Briefly.
I recognized this difference in communication between the sexes again recently when Dan asked me to call a female friend of mine to confirm the date and time of an upcoming event.
“I won’t have time to do that until this evening,” I told him.
“What? It will take you 30 seconds.”
I explained that I hadn’t spoken to this particular friend for a couple of weeks and, if I called, I would need to ask about her new job, her kids’ recent report cards, and her grandmother’s cancer. We would need to swap stories from Thanksgiving and maybe even share a recipe or two. I would also have to follow up with her about that thorny issue with her sister-in-law she had shared with me the last time we talked. Calling to ask her for a date and time was a 45-minute commitment. Anything less would be rude.
Dan called her husband instead, and in fewer than twelve seconds, he had the information he wanted.
I have to admit that there’s a refreshing simplicity about the way that most boys handle conflicts. We girls tend to verbalize our disagreement, hint at our displeasure, and when all else fails, resort to good old-fashioned passive-aggressive behavior. We are wonderfully complex in that way.
But boys don’t have time for any of that nonsense. If they need to, they fight. I say “fight,” but it is true that what we girls call “fighting” most boys would call simply “working it out,” if they were at all inclined to describe in words what they do.
I observe it in my living room on a daily basis: Two boys scuffle. They shove, wrestle, and occasionally punch. This is fun. This is recreation. This is a good time.
At some point in the action, one boy shoves or punches the other boy a bit too hard. This is a foul and must be dealt with. They work it out — by shoving and punching, of course. The action gets intense and female onlookers are inclined to verbalize their concern, until one final punch is answered with another decisive punch.
It is settled. All is well.
“Wanna go play ball or something?” one of them asks. “Sure,” the other shrugs, and they are on their way. Leaving their baffled, bemused, and always-learning mother alone with her thoughts and prayers for the grace of understanding.