As a toddler, my son Jon* was politely referred to as “a handful.” There was no door he couldn’t open, no ladder he couldn’t climb, no boundary he would not push. We braced ourselves when he started school, but if one thing can be said of Jon, it is that he is constantly surprising us. Our rambunctious boy has been a model student since Pre-K. In first grade, he tested into the gifted program and was invited to apply to the local magnet schools.
My husband and I received this news with mixed emotions, because while Jon was excelling at school, at home he seemed to be constantly frustrated and upset. Most of it was centered around on his older brother, Charlie, and all of the things that he could do that Jon couldn’t. Charlie could run faster, he could build the big Lego sets, and when they played Super Mario Smash Brothers, Charlie usually won.
I tried to console Jon. “He’s two years older.”
“Why did I have to be born second?” He sobbed. “Do you hate me? Do you think I’m stupid?”
“Of course not!”
“Then why can’t I WIN?”
“I just told—”
“This is the WORST DAY.”
“I swear,” I told my husband later. “It’s like we’re raising a 1980s stereotype of a teen girl.”
The word we were looking for was “emotional.” Jon is funny. Jon is smart. Jon has too much ear wax and a slight lactose intolerance, and Jon is emotional. One time he smashed his finger in a door while playing at my parents’ house. He didn’t just cry, he ran from one side of the room to the other for almost forty minutes screaming, “I’m RUUUUINED!”
No one prepared us for this. No one ever warned us that we might have a child whose response to every disappointment would be perpetually set to DEFCON ONE. We had one laid-back, happy son, and we thought we understood what little boys needed and how they behaved. Boys, we were always told, are resilient. They don’t express themselves verbally. Not only did Jon seem to feel every slight and stumble at a magnification of ten, he had absolutely no problem letting the world know about it. It was embarrassing.
“Don’t scream like that,” I heard my mother-in-law tell him once. “You sound like a little girl! You want to sound like a big man!” I thought about telling her that we don’t use “little girl” as an insult in our family, but I let it go, partially out of careful daughter-in-law politeness and partially because I hoped that maybe it would work. If social pressure could make Charlie stop picking his nose in public, why couldn’t it teach Jon some self-control?
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed it is that children learn from the people around them. A two-year old gets results from screaming, a four-year old will be reprimanded for the same behavior. They learn from this, and the more extreme reactions usually subside.
Three years after Jon we had a daughter. She was two the first time I painted her toenails, and Jon came over to watch. “Can you do mine?” he asked.
“Sure,” I answered, figuring it would be hidden by his shoes at school anyway. He picked out a sparkly midnight blue polish, and I started painting. Charlie wandered over to observe.
“Boys don’t do that,” he announced. “Kids will laugh at you.”
Jon immediately scrubbed his thumb through the wet polish on his big toe. “Get it off. I don’t want it.”
They have it all sorted out by kindergarten. This is for boys and this is for girls. Boys do this, girls do that. Boys don’t wear nail polish. Boys don’t scream. Boys don’t cry. So what can boys do? Boys can get angry. Those around them adapt.
“JON.” I said, forcing his shoes onto his feet. “I can’t stop time. I can’t keep the school bus from coming.”
“But it’s NOT FAIR,” he screamed back at me. “I didn’t get a turn on the tablet! You didn’t tell me it was almost time! This is YOUR FAULT.”
“We’ll talk about it later. You have to go to school!”
“I HATE YOU! You’re the meanest mommy!”
We’re very big on talking in our family. Use your words, talk it out with your brother, come downstairs when you’re ready to talk. But once Jon was in full tsunami mode, there was nothing I could say. Talking only seemed to amplify his outrage.
So like women often do, I tried to manage his environment. I carefully planned every social event and family outing to avoid conflict and potential meltdowns. It helped, but I resented every second of it. I’m all too aware of how women are expected to manage not only our own emotional states, but the emotional wellbeing of everyone around us.
Our daughter Ella is only three and already I see her trying to soothe Jon when he’s upset. I want to praise her compassion, and at the same time I want to carry her away, sit her down, and tell her that she does not have to do that.
Even Charlie, with his easy-going personality, often gives up what he wants when a meltdown is approaching, and too many times I let him. “Thank you, Charlie,” I’ll say, relieved that peace has been preserved and ashamed of how helpless I feel in the face of a seven-year old’s anger.
I’ve often wondered why this struggle seems to be absent at school. His teachers have never said anything to me about it. Behavior in elementary school is marked by the colors green, yellow, and red. Jon’s chart for first grade was a solid line of green. He’s reading above his grade level and absorbing math concepts that Charlie didn’t get until second grade. Maybe school is a frustration-free zone because the material is so easy for him, and his classmates fight over who gets to sit next to him at lunch.
But as he grows, school will become more challenging, and the social dynamics will become more complex. I worry about how he’ll manage his frustrations then. There is no shortage of men in this world who have learned to process emotion as aggression and combat their disappointments with a desire to control others.
I know I can’t handle Jon’s emotions for him. I can’t remove all of the conflict from his environment. I can’t hand him off to all of the other women that will inhabit and fill his life and expect them to do it. Jon needs to learn to handle his own feelings, and I need to let him. We need to make sure he knows it’s okay to have emotions, and we need to coach him to handle them in a healthy way.
So we keep working at it, even through our exasperation and fears. It starts with assuring Jon that he’s allowed to be mad, or upset, or frustrated. “It’s okay to be angry,” I say over and over again like a mantra, “it’s not okay to lash out.”
This year we bought him a diary with a lock, a place to write all of his feelings down. Keeping a diary might not seem manly, but it could help a lot of men. We offer as much encouragement and positive reinforcement as possible. And when he makes an effort to explain why he’s upset we pay careful attention, even when it makes no sense to us.
No matter how many times we feel utterly confounded by our son, we wouldn’t change a hair on his head or a fragment of his sensitive soul. And while we look forward to the day that Jon has better control of his emotions, we pray that the world around him won’t teach him to hide his emotions or trade vulnerability for aggression.
God gave us this amazing child, and we believe that Jon’s life is full of potential to serve God and to help others with his gifts. Jon is funny. Jon is smart. He has too much ear wax and a slight lactose intolerance and Jon is emotional. We will keep treasuring him for who he is and rest safe in the knowledge that those sharp-edged emotions can also yield a tender heart.
*The names of my children have been changed to protect their privacy.