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Monday, February 1, 2016

How to talk to boys

Hold on.  Middle school flashback.  A boy turns around in his chair.  He looks at me and says something.  Something, I'm sure, that should elicit a very simple response.  But my palms go sweaty, my face goes bright red, and my mind goes completely and utterly blank.

These days my concerns about talking to boys look a little different.  And if I thought middle school boys were difficult, it's nothing compared to the handsome, complicated, mysterious little men roaming my house today.

When they were babies I literally knew everything about them.  When they ate, how long they slept, the size and consistency of each and every bowel movement.

As toddlers we forged first friendships together.  I sat across the room as they fought over toys and shared snacks on the couch.  They followed me through the house eight hours a day, tiny shadows when all I wanted was a little space.  If they quietly disappeared for a bit they were likely unraveling entire rolls of toilet paper or taking a swig from the jewelry cleaner (which, fyi, is totally fine, per my friends at poison control).  

Then they went to school and suddenly all I knew about their days were the things they chose to tell me.  And it wasn't much.

At first I tried to pry information from Aiden's teacher.  I must have reeked of desperation because each morning she'd invite Finn and I in for snack time.  I'd take off our coats and shoes, just like the kids, and Finn would dangle his feet off a little chair as he happily slurped down a drinking yogurt. Meanwhile I bounced from kid to kid, carefully removing their foil lids, glad to take a small part in Aiden's day.  

I thought this was totally normal.  I didn't realize this first teacher of ours was a beautiful, patient angel (with a son of her own) who let me spend that first year taking steps back from my full-time involvement in Aiden's life.

After snack time we'd slip away and the next six hours were a complete blank to me.  

I spent the following four years grilling the boys about their days without me.  What they ate.  Who they played with.  Where they slept at nap time.

My success was minimal at best.  Normally they ignored me and went off to play.  At most I'd receive a one word answer.  Usually "good."  

As they got older they'd offer me small bits of information that I'd pounce on with the ferocity of predator to prey.  They nearly always fled the scene when they sensed my hunger.  

About six months ago we sat around the dinner table.  I probed, as usual, into their days.  Their answers, as usual, were short and pained.  

Joel suddenly looked up from his meal and asked, "What number was your day?  One through ten?  One is really bad.  Ten is great."

The boys thought for a moment.

"Ten."

"Ten."

The counselor in me was appalled.  How could you assign a number to all the ups and the downs and the pride and joy and disappointment and anger all consolidated into one, average day.  

"What was your high point?" he continued.

High point?  You want them to pick one high point?  What about all the good points and the medium points?  What made those less important.

"PE."

"Music."

"Oh yeah, what did you do in those classes?"

"Obstacle course."

"We sang."

What KIND of obstacle course?  I wanted to shout.  Were you encouraging the other kids?  Were they encouraging you?  Did you get frustrated?  What did you sing in music?  Do you like to sing?  Does it make you feel proud?

But I forced myself to shut up.  Forced myself to sit and listen.

"What was your low point?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing."

But of course there was a low point.  Of course something didn't go your way.  Of course someone, at some point, made you feel just a little, teensy bit bad.  It's okay to have low points, I wanted to yell.  It's okay to feel sad and angry and, at times, downright miserable.

But they kept on eating and everyone seemed happy and the conversation moved on.

This same conversation has continued, to varying degrees, at every dinner since.  One of Benjamin's first questions was, "What's yo number?"  And when we ask him he quickly answers "Ten!"

If a boy answers ten we assume it was a fairly run-of-the-mill, average day.  If he answers nine, we worry.  Like the day that I mixed up Aiden's mustard sandwich with Finn's mayonnaise sandwich.  That one was a real doozie.  

One day Finn didn't answer.  We had already learned, from his teacher, that it had been a bad day.  I didn't realize how upset he was until he refused to give a number.  It was a less-than-nine day.  Unheard of.  

When the other boys went upstairs I held him on my lap.  I tried the prying method of removing information, but he wouldn't budge.  I tried bribes and threats and gentle and stern, but the boy would not, could not, absolutely refused to talk.

And so, even though every ounce of me wanted to keep pushing, I didn't.  I told him I was there to listen, and that nothing he could ever tell me would make me love him any less.  And somehow, miraculously, I left it at that. 

He didn't tell me anything that night, but I know he heard me.  And so I said it again at bed time.  And again the next day.  

And a few nights later he told me everything.  From start to finish.  He told me what happened and how he responded.  He told me what was said and done and how it made him feel.  Everything.

Just kidding.  He never mentioned it again.  

But I'm learning to live with that.  As a mom of boys.  I'm learning that information gleaned will be minimal, but sometimes Aiden calls out from his bed, long after I've assumed he's fallen asleep, "Mom, something's bothering me."  And I go to him and he talks to me and sometimes we pray together and even though it only happens once every four to six months or so, I know that he trusts me.  That he'll deal with the things he can deal with and come to me or his dad with the things that he can't.  

And I've learned to listen when they don't speak.  I listen to the way Aiden relentlessly teases his brother, and I know he was frustrated that day.  I listen to Finn's angry screams at the slightest provocation, and I imagine he felt hurt or helpless that day.  

I always give them the chance to talk to me.  I let them know that I'm listening, even when they haven't said a word.

And then I let it go.  I listen to their nine's and ten's and I realize it's better for them to excitedly assign a numerical value to their day than to begrudgingly offer up information they never wanted to share.  

I'm learning to listen, with interest, to the stories of their Minecraft world when what I really, really want is the stories from their real world.  But I'm trying to respond to the things that are important to them, instead of grabbing for the things that are important to me.  

Let me tell you this... it is not easy.  Watching them build their Minecraft world, block by block, is only slightly preferable to sticking a fork in my eye and twisting it around.  It's torture.  All I can think is, Oh my gosh, how many more blocks until it's over.  

But it's important to them, and even though I'd much rather know how their friendships are progressing, or even their favorite subjects at school, I don't get to pick the things that they want to share.  And as much as I want to, I also don't.

These boys of mine are slowly becoming actual people.  With thoughts and feelings and worlds of their own.  And when I can remind myself to stop forcing long in-depth conversations (that probably feel much like a fork in the eye to them), I can enjoy their numbers and single-word answers and the fact that they're functioning human beings who don't need me to wipe their butts anymore.

I want the in-depth conversations.  And maybe one day (crossing my fingers here) I'll get them.  But I don't need them.  What I need is not for them to talk, but for them to hear...

I'm here.  You can talk.  But you don't have to.