Have you ever overheard the interactions between middle school boys and girls? It’s excruciating. The girls are trying to seem important, grown up, and flirty, which often times leads to snickering, giggling, perhaps an insulting question or observation, and whispering to their friends. The boys, meanwhile, often seem awkward and rowdy, which leads to joking and goofing around with the other boys around them. Of course, it is possible for boys and girls to have normal conversations. But watch any tween show on television and this is the typical portrayal, which many parents can attest mirrors actual scenes from middle school hallways.
Additionally, when something embarrassing or hurtful happens to a boy, they are conditioned to not show genuine emotion or (gasp!) express their feelings. I remember volunteering in the lunchroom at my daughter’s middle school. There was a boy who was being silly at the table with his friends, waving a plastic water bottle around and pretending that he might squirt it. One of his friends grabbed the bottle and threw it back at him, hitting him square in the eye. It was so unexpected and happened so quickly that the boy instinctively started to cry. Thankfully, a nearby teachers’ aide went over and created enough of a distraction to allow this boy to collect himself. He then acted flippant about the incident, laughing and resuming goofy behavior with the boys. It was apparent he was still in pain or discomfort, but he was not about to let anyone know this.
When I later asked my daughter how he was the rest of the day, she said “oh he didn’t care about that, he was totally fine – he thought it was funny.” This whole scenario disturbed me. I understand that no kid that age wants to sit and cry, sharing his feelings about what just happened. But what I realized in talking to my own tween daughter is that girls generally believe that boys their age don’t care much about what happens to them and don’t really have many feelings, about themselves or others. Once I had this realization, I began to observe this among the tweens at school in order to confirm my suspicions, and talked to friends about it. Being the mom of a girl, I felt unqualified to really speak to what tween boys are like underneath their often silly shell. But I felt strongly about wanting to bridge the gap between how boys are perceived and how they actually are. Who better to ask than the moms of tween boys – so I posed the following question to moms of boys: “What do you wish that moms of girls would know about your son?”
Many gracious moms helped out with their insight, and that’s exactly what it is – insightful. What came hammering through at me as I read each response is that these moms see how sweet and caring their boys are, and how so few around them seem to see it! Beyond this, some themes emerged, so I broke them down into the following categories:
There’s more to goofiness than meets the eye. Let’s face it – many tween boys do often appear goofy and silly, and most moms actually confirmed this! There were some differences and excellent points, however. For many boys, it is much easier and safer to express this side of themselves than to show their compassionate sides. Most moms felt that their boys are able to show their true personalities at home; a complex mix of sensitivity, kindness, and yes, silliness. Some go to school and stay quiet, preferring to fly under the radar. For more outgoing boys, the complexities still exist, but they know that showing a soft side to their peers is asking for trouble, so they put their best goofy foot forward in an almost protective way.
Society makes it okay to treat boys as if they have no feelings. I’ve seen more than a few plots on different sitcoms that involve a wife or girlfriend being so touched when her husband or boyfriend cries, but then the crying is repeated, and she is suddenly embarrassed and horrified. In our society, we are simply uncomfortable with the emotions of boys and men. Being around sports, I have heard parents brag about their son: “he got tackled so hard and was bleeding, but he didn’t even cry!” Rewarding a young boy for suppressing his emotions makes me crazy, but it is commonplace.
So on this one hand, we have a society that teaches boys to not express feelings, and then on the other hand we don’t teach girls to treat boys with the same sensitivity we expect for them. The most frequent example brought up, and that I have seen as well, is when a boy likes a girl. As I mentioned, the entire scene of boys and girls interacting is painful to watch – these are learning experiences and it’s totally normal to be awkward at this age. However, many moms of girls fail to teach their daughters how to let a boy down easy. Having volunteered at middle school dances I have witnessed boys who ask girls to dance, only to be met with fake gags and screeching while running to their friends. I have had to suppress the urge to pelt these girls with gummy bears as I watched the embarrassed boys return to their friends acting as if this was no big deal. Girls have learned that they can say just about whatever they want to a boy, and he will show little to no reaction.
Moms know how they really feel. Most moms said that their son either withdraws, shuts down, holds in feelings, retreats, or internalizes their feelings when upset. Many moms said almost the same thing – “he will go to the ends of the earth to pretend everything is okay.” What I loved is that the moms could see clearly that their son was indeed upset about something. And they had all figured out some way of helping him manage his emotions, by giving him space or knowing the right thing to say. I was so impressed to hear that eventually some of the boys do let their parents know what is upsetting them. Even when goofiness can be the face they show to the world, moms of boys want you to know that they see their real sons at home. And that if your daughter did hurt his feelings, there’s a good chance mom will hear about it later.
Boys are going through many of the same things as girls. So much attention is focused on girls and their hormonal changes, puberty, emotional trials, and challenging friendship issues. There are obvious differences in puberty, and moms of boys point out that it’s much more common to hear people talk about how if affects girls – there are commercials that normalize it for girls, but nothing about the changes in boys. Couple this with the fact that women tend to be more communicative than boys, and the topic of puberty in boys quickly goes underground. Girls hear their moms talk about just about everything with their friends, and girls often talk more easily to their moms about these matters. You don’t generally hear men sharing stories of puberty with other men (“let me tell you about when I sprouted hair, and where…”), and many men are uncomfortable talking with their sons about the topic. But the fact remains, they are going through often confusing changes, just like girls.
They are also trying to find their way in school, and the world, just like girls. These moms would love girls to give their sons the same amount of individual consideration that they would like to receive. A lot of moms felt that girls are seen as going through a lot during the tween years, and dealing with the angst of growing up, and hope moms of girls realize that boys are going through things too – they just have a different way of showing it (or trying not to show it).
It was so interesting to me to read through the thoughts that moms shared with me, and I was fascinated that they all had so many views in common. And there was something else that they had in common, something that was missing from their answers – anger and frustration about how mean girls can be. I had been expecting lists of what cruel things girls had done to their boys, and didn’t get this at all. Maybe as the mom of a girl, I feel responsible for the mistreatment that can be perpetrated against boys. Regardless, I am very impressed that these moms seem to not focus on what girls should or should not do – they are too busy focusing on raising fine young men.
I could write an entire piece on what to teach girls, but I think you already know, and it boils down to this: be nice! Talk about boys in categories with your daughter; what to do if a boy likes her and she doesn’t like him, how to show empathy for a boy who doesn’t seem upset but had something upsetting happen, and most importantly, that even though boys don’t often show their feelings, they do have them and they deserve to be considered.