The Difference Between My Boys

Wizards DuelMy oldest child got in the car last week after school, his entire frame drooping. “The boys made fun of me,” he said.

Knowing my children’s capacity for drama, I probed for more details. But the more I heard, the more I hurt inside. Because as best I could tell, it actually was as bad as he said.

I often say I’m not a very good “girl.” I don’t understand how it’s possible, let alone desirable, to spend two hours getting ready for any occasion. I don’t carry a purse. I find shopping tedious and women’s shoes ridiculous.

Likewise, Alex isn’t a very good “boy.” He’s far too sensitive and creative-minded. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s all empathy and thoughtfulness.

In a decade or two, these qualities will make him a stellar catch for some lucky girl, but for now it just makes him…well, kind of a target.

That night as I did dishes, I was listening to Nicholas as he monologued. “I’m a good helper, Mommy. Wasn’t that a good job I did? I’m so good at ____.” This from the child who had had his movie privileges revoked for two days because he went up to his baby brother and smacked him, then turned around and shoved him to the ground.

As I reflected, I had to marvel at the contrast between my older two boys. Like his brother, Nicholas is highly imaginative and intelligent. Unlike Alex, he’s not particularly empathetic. In part, that’s the age difference, but the fact is that Alex has always had a soft heart and a less-than-atmospheric opinion of his own worth–two things that go hand in hand. After all, if you are able to empathize with others, you are also less susceptible to blanket judgments, because you’re more thoughtful about how your own opinions fit into the big picture.

Nicholas does not suffer from any such moderation. He’s the one who’s willing to cut off his hand to spite his foot. It’s all about him and what he’s feeling right now, with no regard for the future. He says he wants to give up bedtime book to play in the tub, but when it comes bedtime he’ll throw a tantrum because you make good on the deal. He wants the toy he wants, and it doesn’t matter if someone else had it first.

And it occurred to me that in four years, Nicholas might be those boys who make fun of dreamy, less-physically-coordinated peers.

There are two sets of thoughts here, one for each boy. The problem of how to teach Nicholas to respect and empathize with others is one whose solution, if there is one, is not going to fit into a paragraph. I’m puzzling over that now and probably will continue to do so as long as he lives under my roof.

More profound to me is the implications for Alex. I realize that as painful as it is for him, this feeling of being a misfit will form his character toward the good. Being made fun of will sensitize him even more toward the feelings and needs of others, and in the end, both the pain and the sensitivity will make him a better human being.

In the meantime, we have to teach him how to stand up for himself appropriately. Which is at least as big a puzzle as the one we’re facing with Nicholas.