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The Wonder of Boys and Men

“…that a boy is, in large part, hard wired to be who he is.  We can’t change who he is.  We can teach him how to develop who he is with confidence, and toward a direction that contributes to our world.”   -Michael Gurian

Boys are different than girls and, fundamentally so, from the moment of conception. Beginning with earliest brain development, evolving into core function, what makes the male tick is profoundly distinct from the perspective of the female. Like many girls, I spent much of my life struggling to “get” boys; being estranged from my father didn’t help. I never was able to crack their boy code and was miserably unsuccessful in my teen years of dating. Even years later after I was married, my husband remained an enigma to me. So many of the behaviors that were natural to him felt like something he was deliberately doing to me…  In retrospect, I see how most of our fights were generated by me wanting him to interact more like me. It wasn’t until my first son was born that I finally got the education I had always needed about boys.

Beginning in his early infancy, I had my first front row seat into the distinct space of male gender identity. I remember my surprise of finding him self-pleasuring, having discovered his penis at just three months, and remarking to myself… “He’s already a boy…” and then the rough and tumble celebrating his first birthday at the Emergency Room with a broken arm. I wouldn’t even have known it was broken except that every time he leaned on it while crawling, it gave way. Not surprisingly, his first and oft repeated word to me was no. He nursed with ferocity, grabbing and demanding. He slept, barely and not uncommonly, with me dozing on the floor next to his crib. After ‘no,’ his next word was ‘ball’ and he could bat, kick, and catch with remarkable accuracy by the age of two. He was Batman every day for a year.

Perplexed, overwhelmed and feeling completely ill-equipped at mothering this son, I was blessed that Michael Gurian’s “The Wonder of Boys” was published as my boy Ian turned four and I had just given birth to my second son. This book opened my eyes to the biologically driven differences of being male, and even more importantly, helped me realize that many of the behaviors that had driven me crazy or hurt my feelings with my husband were not personal, but rather a result of the same male brain function. It was a revelation and offered me both the insight and skills to wonder how to appreciate the classic male behaviors to the benefit of raising both my sons and healing my marriage.

In preparation for celebrating the men in our lives – the fathers, brothers, sons and husbands- here are a few suggestions that I rely on to initiate wonder and appreciation for the ways that boys will always be boys….

  1. As part of their biological functioning, many men search for instant or, at least, quick gratification in most of what they do-whether eating quickly, jumping from one activity to another or seeking out quick sexual conquests….  Timing is everything, and one way to employ their need for gratification is pair less desirable activities with ones that they are excited to do. In my house, intimate conversation that is harder to instigate is always paired with sexual intimacy and when the boys were growing up, at least one chore was always linked to a favorite snack or game. The urge toward gratification can be evolved into a strong sense of responsibility, which also provides pleasure with maturity.
  2. One of the key issues many women have with their men and boys is their tendency to want to move quickly into a problem-solving mode, even and maybe especially, with emotionally complex experiences. When I began to understand that they weren’t deliberately not listening so much as they were invested in relieving discomfort, I softened. We now have a code word built in- when the women in the family don’t want problem solving – just an open ear can be a remarkably simple yet ineffective solution.
  3. One thing that characterizes boys of all ages is that they are always in motion. Most grown men also tend to seek out activities through which they use their bodies to build physical tension, such as sports or online competitive play, which then releases tension and ends with a feeling of “ahhh…” Understanding how the male impulse towards tension and resolution can be respected in relationship to life makes things easier for everyone… Truth is, without this outlet, you aren’t going to deal with a happy and engaged boy, so creating events that offer movement and tension resolution is a great gift for the integrity of the entire family structure. Encouraging play actually does make life more playful.