action, Activity Theory, Are You There God It's Me Margaret, Barbies, boys, brain development, compassion, connections, daughters, differences, family, football, girls, happiness, humor, husband, Joe Flacco, Judy Blume, love, marriage, men and women, Michael Gurian, motherhood, parenthood, peace, play, pregnancy, relationships, science, sons, The Wonder of Boys, understanding, words
Someone once told me that if I wanted to get my son talking about his day, I should take him for a walk. Get him moving, and he will talk. So I tried it, and it’s true. If I want to hear about the in’s and out’s of my boy’s life, I just convince him to walk the dog with me. As soon as we are in motion, he starts chatting away. Sometimes, if he has a lot on his mind, we’ll do several laps around the neighborhood.
I wasn’t always confident in my ability to mother a boy. (I still don’t always know what the hell I am doing, even 11 years in). Growing up in a house where girls outnumbered boys two-to-one, I had always imagined mothering daughters. When I found out at the 20-week mark of my first pregnancy that I was carrying a boy, I freaked out a little. I didn’t think I would know how to relate to little boys at all, and I didn’t even try to fathom anything beyond the age of four. Sure, I had held my own in many a neighborhood kickball game as a kid, but my childhood nostalgia mostly consisted of Barbies, pretend-play with dolls and girly sleepovers. I fantasized about sitting on my future-daughter’s bedside having long conversations about Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, the way my mother did with me. I wasn’t sure how that was all going to work with a boy.
Instead of panicking (in addition to panicking?), I read a book called The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian. I most vividly remember the introductory chapter, where Gurian talks about the development of the male brain vs. the female brain in utero. Apparently (and forgive my lay-person interpretation of the science), the hemispheres of a male brain develop one at a time, with connections forming between the two afterwards, whereas the female brain is forming connections throughout the developmental process as the two hemispheres grow simultaneously. This is supposed to explain why a boy with a Barbie is more likely to use her as a weapon or hurl her through space, while girls will give names and personalities to a fleet of Matchbox cars, making them talk to each other about the color of their paint and the day’s events. It’s pure biology, and it’s fascinating.
(I am grossly simplifying here, but I just wanted to point out that there is science behind that which I am trying to convey. Michael Gurian does a much better job at laying it all out.)
As he grows up, my boy’s perceptions of the world continue to intrigue me. Mothering him has also provided unexpected insights about the grown-up man with whom I also live. My long-term observations of these two fine specimens, coupled with what I know of their biological development, recently brought me to an epiphany that I like to call “The Activity Theory.”
THE ACTIVITY THEORY*
If you want to be closer to any boy in your life – child or grown – introduce an activity to share. Whether it is golf, hiking, running, poker, shooting pool, walking the dog, or even having sex, men bond when they share an activity with someone. My husband has golf buddies, hiking buddies, poker buddies…you get the idea. Sit a man down at a table in a coffee shop with another man, tell him he needs to stay there and just talk for two hours, and he will likely find the experience to be awkward and torturous. Sit him down with the same friend at a bar with a football game on TV, and he will engage in the shared activity of watching football for four hours, which, consequently, involves actively observing other men hurling objects while moving through space. The act of moving through space, whether actually or vicariously, seems to make all the difference in the world in a man’s social relationships.
Women are different. We more often than not will prioritize the person in the room over the activity being shared. If we are in the company of someone we like, an hour in the waiting room at the dentist’s office can be the best part of our day. Whereas my husband will gladly play golf with a stranger, I will gladly attempt golf if my best friend is doing it, too, and if there is the promise of sitting down to discuss it over a cup of coffee afterwards. Maybe we will just skip the golf. The point is that for me, the activity is almost always secondary to the company I am keeping.
I have gathered empirical evidence of this phenomenon in my children, too. When our family is invited to a party, my daughter will ask, “Who is going to be there?” while my son’s question is, “Will there be a basketball hoop?”
I was pretty proud of myself when I came up with this theory…until a counselor gave me a CD to listen to, and on it were two psychologists discussing my theory. Which brings me to another theory: I don’t think there are any new ideas out there to be had, just different means to come to the same conclusions, and different words to describe them. Ce la vie. My theory won’t win the Nobel prize, but it has been helpful not only in raising a son, but also in navigating a marriage.
Want to be closer to a boy? Figure out what he likes to do, and then do it with him. If he wants to be closer to you, hopefully, after the activity is complete, he will sit on the couch and listen with enthusiasm as you retell the story, exploring the deeper meaning of whatever it is you just did.
*Disclaimer: This essay is based solely on my personal observations of the limited sample of males with whom I live. I will not be held liable for dysfunctional or warped views. I do not claim to be an expert on boys, nor do I play one on TV. These observations should not be substituted for medical advice or for family counseling. I am quite certain, as with all things, that there are exceptions to the Activity Theory.