Take a mother, three boys, a husband, a brother and a brother-in-law and what do you have? A woman surrounded by males. That’s me.
I am the only female in a house of boys and men. I don’t actually live with my brother and my brother-in-law, you understand, I’m just emphasising the lack of females in my extended family. I do live with three sons, who are 18, 15 and 12, and a husband.
The four of them drive me crazy and they make my heart sing, often at exactly the same time. I live in a world of discarded boxer shorts, upright lavatory seats and trails of loose change left for me to follow like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs through the house.
The boys are mine but I sometimes feel I am only borrowing them until another woman comes along to claim them. “A son is a son till he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life,” as the saying goes.
When my eldest turned 18 a few months ago it gave me cause to reflect. He is now an adult, a man. To me this is incredible. How do you build a boy?
Mothers of boys must get used to endless reruns of Top Gear REXFEATURES
Well, you will need, in no particular order, love, sticks, Sellotape, interesting stones, firm rules, snacks, outdoor space and judicious use of turning a blind eye. Add time and cuddles and don’t stop giving those cuddles even when the boy towers over you, remarking, “My, you’re shrinking, mother.” Secretly, he still wants them.
Allow for running, jumping, climbing, even in the house. To minimise this, do trips to the park, followed by trips to the park, followed by trips to the park. “For my birthday can I have a really nice stick?” the eldest said, when he was five. I think that sums it up. Oh, and you mustn’t mind that your house gets trashed. We have whole chunks taken out of our beloved Victorian terrace.
Be prepared for any or all of the following as they grow up, beginning with: “I can’t find it/where is it?” Then there’s that constant refrain: “There’s never any food in this house!” (You will also spend your entire life making emergency trips to buy more Jaffa Cakes.)
Wet towels/T-shirts/pants/homework will always be on the floor. Get used to endless reruns of Top Gear and QI. Random plastic bags will be strewn all over the place (why?). No one will notice your new hair/dress/shoes. Don’t expect interesting gossip about school/work (you will become so desperate for conversation you’ll ask them what they ate for lunch). And do expect to be asked questions you are not equipped to answer. A recent example: “What was it like, Mummy, when Space Invaders came out?”
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great bits, too. Our home is loud, loving and emotionally uncomplicated with plenty of “debates”, jokes and music. Both the older boys play guitar, electric and acoustic, and both are brilliant (me, biased?). I love this. Our poor neighbours probably do not. Plus there is little spite or malice with boys, no grudges or emotional manipulation. Yes, there are rows and tantrums (mostly mine), and there was fighting and lashing out when they were younger, especially between the older two who are closer in age, but all is quickly forgotten.
Boys are judged as hooligans merely on their haircuts or clothing REX
My friends with girls have complicated emotional issues to deal with. They fret about the pressures placed on young women: to be slim and attractive, that they are sexualised too young by aggressive marketing and the media. I sit and listen and think how sophisticated and sorted most of the girls I know appear to be compared with boys, and I wonder about the pressures on them.
Consultant psychiatrist Sebastian Kraemer, famous for his notion of the “Fragile Male”, points out: “The human male is, on most measures, more vulnerable than the female.”
He explains that male babies are more likely to be born prematurely, with disorders such as autism, and more likely to have poorer motor and cognitive regulation leading to misjudgement of risk, encouraging accidents, crime, drug-taking and violence. They commit suicide in greater numbers, and are more likely to be the victim of violent crime; they are even more prone to asthma. Are they then, I wonder, contrary to popular belief, actually the weaker sex?
We don’t tick many of those scary boxes in our household, thank goodness, although one boy does suffer from asthma and another has been mugged three times. Which brings me to worry. I worry because society is meaner to boys. “A typical attitude,” says Kraemer, “is that they are, or must be made, more resilient than girls.”
In other words: big boys don’t cry. So when they run for the bus and have to watch it pull away from them once again, knowing the driver saw them in his rear mirror, as has happened to my boys many times, they must learn to shrug it off and walk home, again. They must be prepared to be judged “hoodies” or hooligans merely on the strength of a haircut, or an item of clothing, and to arouse suspicion in shops.
And they must be wary of other men. “Never make eye contact with a mean-looking man in a pub,” I say. So this is the worst bit about building a boy: sending him off into the world. Because it is then the mother’s fate to lie awake at night, once he has come of age and is out by himself, trusting to luck and good judgment, and that advice she gave him about the dodgy-looking geezer in the pub, until she hears the comforting click of the front door, his light tread on the stair, and knows that he is safe.
TIPS FOR RAISING BOYS
Leave your house-proud days behind you. We haven’t had the hall and stairs decorated in seven years because there doesn’t seem any point. Chips and scuffs all over the place.
Proffer food such as milk, biscuits, fruit or toast the minute he gets in from school. Never try to talk to a boy about something if he has an empty stomach. This also applies to husbands.
Make sure he goes to bed at a reasonable hour and at the same time. A tired boy is the next worst thing to a hungry boy.
Always have Sellotape to hand. It is amazing what a small boy will want to Sellotape to what.
There will be sticks, stones, old drinks cans, bottle tops and interesting dead insects kept under the bed. Try to turn a blind eye because he will become hysterical if you attempt to remove them.
Do bedtime reading aloud. Boys can be slower than girls to read and this helps. Make sure to read Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl to him at least once – if Dad can do this, even better.
And do not pressure him to read too early; leave attractive-looking non-fiction and cartoon-style books, such as Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, casually lying around as encouragement instead. Once they get the reading habit they will move on to other things.
Forget piano or violin lessons. Not cool. Arrange guitar lessons. The boy is far less likely to give these up when he hits puberty. (According to my middle son, a guy with a guitar case is proven to be more attractive to women than one without.)
Sport. Have them do some to run off energy. It doesn’t have to be football. Our boys took up fencing at the age of eight and two of them still do it.
Give up trying to make him look smart. It’s a waste of time. I buy combs and toothbrushes and they are sorely neglected. You can take a boy to water but you cannot make him wash or brush his teeth.