Tuesday, February 21, 2012

strong doesn't always mean how much you can carry

My little man is growing up so quickly.  He spends a lot of his time comparing himself to his little brother. "I can have four chicken nuggets but Alex can only have one, because he is still a baby." (The real reason Alex can only have one is that he seems unable, or maybe unwilling, to eat a chicken nugget. He sees his brother eating them at home and demands them for himself, but then it all spirals downward as he manages to chew on the nugget long enough to be really gross and then either spit it out in my hand or choke on it and throw it back up. That's right, that's the kind of fun we have around here at meal time.) "I can ride my bike around the neighborhood two whole times before I get tired because I have been eating my vegetables and getting strong. Alex can't even go down the street on my old tricycle for very long because he never eats anything." (Well, not anything. He does, on occasion, suck on a chicken nugget.) "I must really be growing because I slept in a lot today. Alex isn't growing as fast as me!" Yes, my big newly five year old is constantly comparing his strength and size to his little brother, and he knows that he is bigger because he is older.  Everything is black and white to him, because he is five years old.

And he expects black and white answers. Which is so hard for me sometimes. I often feel as though every interaction I have with my boys has the potential to be life changing. You just never know which moment will be the one that they will always remember,  the one they choose to pass along to their own children one day. Don't get me wrong. 80% of the time I give short, one word answers. and 79% of the time my smart as a whip big newly five year old  asks so many in depth follow up questions that I wind up giving the extended answer in the end anyways. And 50%  70%  of the time I wind up googling that answer.

This morning at the breakfast table my big five year old posed this question: "Mommy, if you and Daddy are the same age, then why is Daddy taller and stronger than you?" Seems like a simple question, right?

When I look back at my childhood there aren't very many moments of true parenting I can remember that involve my mother. I have no doubt she loved us; she just managed to be somewhat absent in our lives while being very present in our home. But one thing she did teach my sister and me was how to be independent. I don't know if she was over compensating for her own perceived lack of independence or if she just joined the women's lib movement a little late, but she wanted her girls to be strong, to think for ourselves. And she accomplished it. So I want to be sure my boys learn early that boys and girls are equal.

But I also want them to understand their role in the lives of the women in their world. My big five year old holds doors open and no longer jumps in front of me when walking through that door. He is learning how to respect the women who will one day bring love, friendship, and perhaps even career supervision to his life. I don't know about you, but my boys are tiny little sponges, soaking up every word we say and every action we take towards one another. My big five year old has already noticed the difference between how Mommy and Daddy interact with the public at large and I hear him repeating back my words about behavior to his little brother. I can tell by his questions and comments that he is putting the pieces of the puzzle together for himself. And I know the messages we send can sometimes be confusing.

Girls can do anything boys can do. "We'll have to wait for Daddy to come home, honey, Mommy can't lift your bed up to see if your car fell underneath."

Girls are just as smart as boys. "When Daddy gets home he can fix the Wii, honey. Mommy can't figure out how to get the TV to change to the right channel."

Boys can keep a home and make great meals. "Mommy, why doesn't Daddy ever make dinner?"

Boys can do the grocery shopping. "Honey, you know they won't eat crunchy peanut butter! Why didn't you get the creamy kind?"

Girls can be just as strong as boys. "Mommy, I always win every race at school- none of the girls can run faster than me!"

And it goes on and on and on. We can drive ourselves crazy worrying about all the mixed messages we are sending our kids. And we should be driving ourselves crazy. I want my boys to learn to treat women with respect, to hold doors open, to show kindness and compassion. But I also want them to truly believe that women are just as smart and able as they are. Maybe more so, in fact. It is my job to teach my boys that strength isn't always measured by how much you can carry and intelligence isn't just being able to balance the checkbook. I can keep a running grocery list in my head, know when my tiny toddler is going to freak out moments before it happens, make the perfect bubble bath with just the right amount of bubbly goodness and create a healthy dinner from scratch. I can plan a birthday party for twenty pre-schoolers while taking a work call and strapping my youngest into his booster seat at the kitchen table. I can sweep through our bedroom and in five minutes make the bed, gather the laundry, and get the toys back to boy's bedrooms. I have managed the sales and marketing components of a large portfolio of senior housing communities with multi million dollar budgets with great success. I have navigated international airports on my own while wearing a cranky baby and dragging suitcases and heavy backpacks. Let's see my husband manage all that!

My smart husband can write computer programs and keep track of all our finances, in a variety of banks, all in his head. He can manage the rental property and hook the DVD player to the Wii to the TV to the stereo. He is strong and knows where to put the washer fluid in the car. He can calm down the tiny toddler with just a whisper and can explain the rules of most major sports. He can tell you what day spring training starts and can navigate any city's public transit system. He analyzes and puts thought into his decisions, something our boys certainly won't learn from me.

My husband and I are working hard to show our little men that equality doesn't mean identical. That smart doesn't always mean great test scores or good at math. Sometimes it means knowing exactly how your little one acts right before getting sick.  That strong isn't always measured by how much you can carry in your arms. Sometimes it means how much you can carry in your heart.

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