What Are Little Boys Made Of?

Leo's 15th month


"He is just all boy," people keep saying, as Leo flings himself and small objects about, shouts loudly just for fun, and smushes as much food into his face as he can by using a fork with one hand while simultaneously cramming more in with his other hand. He goes through at least three outfits a day, including shoes. He never sits still. He's fascinated by how things work and is dedicated to learning how to drain the tub, turn on the vacuum, and put the key in the door. Why don't any of his girl friends seem to move as much or get as messy?

At the park last weekend, Aaron was chasing Leo around the sprinkler while I watched from a bench. And then they disappeared. For ages. "Where were you?" I asked when they finally showed up. "At the basketball courts," Aaron shrugged. "Leo wanted to watch the game."

All boy? Every time someone says it, I'm shocked. Is he? Or are we imposing this?

During one of his (many) bad nap days recently, I took Leo to a new playground, where he got involved with another little boy his age who was rolling a soccer ball with his dad. Eventually, Leo grabbed the ball and rolled over it gently, landing on the rubberized play surface. He started crying. "Really?" I said. "Are you sure it's that bad?" "Ohhh, Ryan," said the other kid's dad, "tell him it's okay to cry."

Don't you love it when other people criticize your parenting by talking to their kids? But of course I picked Leo up thinking I must be some kind of unsympathetic sexist mom trying to toughen up my little boy by ignoring his needs and teaching him to repress his feelings. Great.

Lately, as I ponder this, there's a phrase that goes through my head. I encountered it a few years before parenthood, while shopping for plastic doohickies at our local 99 cent store, where I found a notebook with a black and white photo of a ripped young man, seen from behind as he shot hoops. Under the photo were the words "Be strong. Be a man." I thought it was so absurd that I bought it for Aaron. But now? I'm thinking that’s not really so funny.

Of course I want Leo to know he can cry when he hurts. And I'd be thrilled if he'd start taking better care of that anatomically correct doll my mom got him for his birthday. For one thing, I'm not really interested in playing ball or knocking down towers of blocks. But it's not a matter of what we want him to do, or feel, is it? It's a matter of helping him to be whoever he is. It's just about what he actually does, and actually feels. And all I can do is roll my eyes at myself when the last sippy cup on the shelf is purple and I stop for a second before grabbing it. Be strong, I tell myself, Be a Mom.

Irish Soda Bread With Raisins