Motherhood, Parenting

Goodies or Goons?

Goodies or Goons - flickr photo by Philip Howard

It seems to me that there tends to be a uniformity in how the sons of larger all-boys families turn out.  Either all of them become entirely decent, productive members of society – or they all become involved in activities that fall outside the dictates of the law.  In other words, they become ‘goodies’ or goons.

At this point in my parenting journey with my boys, it could really go either way.

Stories abound in which sets of brothers join (or form) criminal gangs and use their fraternal connections and familial might for ignoble ends.

Why would this be?

Well, I’ve always said that groups of boys are much more than the sum of their parts.  Even if your boys can be calm and focused and gentle, most likely they will exhibit none of these characteristics when in the company of other boys.  Boys have a natural inclination to energetic physicality and hyper-competitiveness, and this is accentuated when they are in a group.  Consequently, when all of the siblings in a family are male – and they are therefore without the mitigating influence of sisters – their rowdiness/noisiness tends to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Aggression is another natural part of boys’ makeup. This innate aggression has very real and necessary applications (so I’m not trying to vilify boys at all*), but within the confines of modern life – most particularly within the educational process – it can be a challenge for boys to find an appropriate outlet for this energy.  In this technological age, boys’ natural physicality is often frustrated, and if parents aren’t really intentional about channelling that energy and teaching their boys how to be gentle and nurturing as well, this negligence can have many negative results. We also need to be deliberate and diligent in showing our boys how to contain those aggressive instincts when necessary, if we are interested in avoiding the necessity of making regular prison visits in our retirement years.

When I had my first two sons, I was determined that they weren’t going to be stereotypical ‘caveman’ males – my boys wouldn’t be rough and loud and rude.  I decided that we weren’t going to buy them any weapons and we would discourage the wrestling and aggressive romping in which we often saw brothers participating. But, like puppies, they began tousling together from an early age; and in spite of a dearth of ‘real’ weapons and an absence of violent media, they found ways of roughing one another up.  This physicality in their play has only increased as we’ve added to their numbers.  I have come to the conclusion that even if we lived on a desert island they’d still end up bashing each other with palm fronds and throwing coconuts at one another.  They’re not generally rude, but rough and loud just seem to go with the territory.

As I touched on above, something that can either mitigate or accentuate boys’ predisposition towards more aggressive behaviour is how they are brought up. When confronted with a gang (gaggle? mess?  murder? I’m never sure what the appropriate plural term for boys should be) of sons, most mothers’ first concern is naturally to ‘manage’ them – so sometimes the whole ‘nurturing’ part of parenting ends up getting tossed out like the proverbial baby in the bathwater as Mamma goes into survival mode.

A friend (herself the mother of four boys) told me about an acquaintance of hers who grew up in an all-boys family (I think there were more than four of them – maybe six?): his mother used to feed them their breakfast cereal in what amounted to a trough – just one huge bowl with a spoon for each boy.  I’m not sure whether my friend expected me to be impressed or horrified by the story.  I was a little of both.  These kinds of tales are lore within the all-boys club, to which I and a number of my friends belong, and there is a sense of kinship in the telling and sharing of them.  Before there were all these ‘life hacks’ going around on the internet, there were mothers of boys passing on the wisdom of their experiences to other mothers walking this path.

Not all boys are the same, of course.  A’s music teacher has two young sons whom she just leaves to play upstairs while the class is going on in a ground-floor room.  Either she’s turning a blind eye to their potential criminality or they are actually obedient, self-controlled kids.  Of course, there are only two of them.  It’s hard for the dynamics of a ringleader and a single follower to culminate in the realisation of devilish schemes.

Speaking of which, I think it is partly this phenomena of ringleaders and followers that crops up when groups of boys are together that causes the uniformity of the results when they’re grown.  Maybe the likelihood of boys in a large all-boys family ending up as positively productive or negatively notorious depends on the inclination of the boy who takes on the largest ‘ringleader’ role in their midst.  Because it seems to me that there does tend to be an instigator for most shenanigans, even if the co-conspirators are equally to blame by the end of the whole thing – and in those families where the boys are all model citizens and are uniformly pleasant to be around, dependable, and all the rest of it, there tends to be a strong leader towards that end as well.

When I think about that and I remember the early-morning candy raids, the flooding of the bathroom, the putty-in-the-bed-linens episode, and other noteworthy events in my boys’ history, it’s easy to imagine that we are doomed.  I might as well start saving up for bail money.

In addition to my sons’ noteworthy departures from upstanding behaviour, there is the fact that all the families I know with four boys around the ages of mine are raising them admirably; this leads me to believe, statistically-speaking, that we are most likely to end up with a gang of goons.

But then I see my boys sprawled together on the couch watching TV; I witness the hand-holding as they walk down the hallway at school; I feel a squeeze on my heart as I watch them give each other a bear-hug; I remember all the kindnesses they show to us and to each other – and I think that maybe, just maybe, we’re going to end up with some ‘goodies’ after all.

Either that or one day you’ll be reading all about my gang of goons in the paper.

*Check out Matt Walsh’s blog for an excellent article on how our society has demonised the natural behaviour of boys.

Family Harmony, Parenting

Lost In The Shuffle

Boys' gifts

Getting the three schoolboys out the door in the mornings is a frantic operation.

“Where’s your lunch?”

“Did you sign my planner?”

“Find your shoes”

“Is it the weekend?”

“What do you think?”

“Is there a note in my lunchbox?”

“Yes.  Shoes, please.”

“I don’t have something for show-and-tell!”

“Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”

“Are we late?”


“I did a double-knot…”

“Who didn’t grab their lunch?”

“Is my note in it?”

“Where’s my kiss?”

And if my Mum’s around, you can add a whole lot of grand proclamations about the weather (“It’s going to be -1 after lunch!”) and queries about the appropriateness of everyone’s clothing for the prophesied forecast – as if somehow we might have mistaken the sunshine outside for a leap into summer straight from mid-winter – making for even more clamour and debate.

There’s so much hurly-burly hustle during the send-off that by the time they’re out the door and D. and I have waved them off with a flurry of blown kisses and ‘love’ signs I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find one of them still standing there just inside the door, having missed the ride/walk to school.  Sometimes, when I pass the big boys’ bedroom and see a lump under the sheets, I wonder if maybe someone got missed in the shuffle.

Every family I know with four or more kids has a story about losing one or another child during an outing – well, not us; but it’s early days yet for us as a family of six and I know that our time will come.  My goddaughter (the youngest of four) was once left behind on a soccer field when the children were being ferried home separately by their parents. Other friends have recounted their stories of that panicked moment when they’ve been away from home and they’ve suddenly looked down and realized that one of their kids wasn’t with them. It has become something of a legend in West’s family how, at age three, he (the third of four children) ventured on a solo journey from home to fetch his older sister from a friend’s house several blocks (and a number of street-crossings) away; my mother-in-law, apparently, only realized he was missing when she received a phone call from the friend’s Mum asking how he had got there.

That’s one of the challenges of having a big family, in fact – it can be easy for someone to get missed in the shuffle.  Sometimes it’s just because things are just crazy with so many people talking and negotiating and sharing and arguing at once – I know that at times like this our youngest (being a pre-verbal small person) can feel rather neglected.  Our C. (a kindergartener) has cause to feel left out, too – mostly when the bigger boys have older-kid stuff on the go, like music practices, homework, or playing games that are too sophisticated for a little brother.  B. can be super-sensitive, and he feels ignored whenever the focus is on anyone other than himself (that’s a whole other topic – watch this space), so his brothers’ birthdays and other celebrations aren’t easy for him.  And A. can sometimes be so acquiescent to his brothers’ demands that he doesn’t really get a say or have a chance to figure out what it is that he really wants in any given situation; so he can get a bit lost in the shuffle, as well.

So we try to give them one-on-one time.  We try to have family meetings where we each say something nice about all the other people.  We try to find little ways of acknowledging the boys (and each other), and having them acknowledge one another.

It’s always a challenge to give our children a reason to feel special and prevent them from feeling that they might be forgotten on the periphery.  This past Christmas, we found a pretty cool way of doing just that.  Instead of adding to the pile of gifts under the tree (we have such a generous family) and wrapping things up for each boy to give to his brothers, we encouraged them to find an activity they could share one-on-one – something that their brother (rather than themselves) would especially like to do.  In other words, they gave each other ‘presence,’ not presents.  We’re hoping that this will help create common experiences and memories, too, that will bind them to one another when sibling rivalry threatens the harmony of our household (as it does from time to time).

We can all sometimes feel a bit lost in the shuffle – our plans, our hopes, our dreams, can be waylaid in the busyness of life – so it helps if the people we love do what it takes to make sure that we don’t stay on the periphery for long.