Raising a rambunctious boy

May 16, 2011

Q. I am lucky to be the mom of a very spirited, happy and joyful little boy who is 11 / 2 years old.

Like most little boys, however, he is extremely active and always curious, and he tries the most dangerous things, such as standing on top of his tricycle or climbing onto the bookshelves. Of course, I put an end to these behaviors right away, but how do I deal with the many disapproving glances from my friends, all of whom have little girls who are the same age as my son but whose temperaments are somehow more docile?

Their parents seem to think that my little boy is out of control and maybe a little bit nuts, when in fact he is quite well-behaved — he even says “please”! — but he is also very active. When we see friends who have little boys, their moms are always gushing about our son and telling us how their little boys were much worse at that age, so I don’t think I’m overlooking any behavior issues. It’s just that the glances, the disapproving looks and the occasional comments that the mothers of the little girls make are beginning to annoy me.

How should I respond to them?


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

A. You can smile sweetly and say, “Aren’t we lucky to have such an active child! He’s all boy!” You can write about your feelings when you get home, so you don’t blow up at these mothers when you’re with them. And you can start hanging out with mothers who have little boys around the age of your son because they understand boys; they know that they’re usually rowdier than girls and they won’t judge you so harshly.

You’re lucky, however. If you were rearing your son in the silly ’70s, you would have been told that behavior is a matter of nurture, not nature, and that you were making him act the way he did. While this idea has a seed of truth in it, it’s much more complicated. Some little boys are quiet by nature, and some little girls are wild. But generally speaking, most boys and girls act according to their sex.

If a little girl is wearing a pretty dress and party shoes, she will probably stay out of mud puddles, but a little boy will usually jump into every puddle he sees, whether he’s dressed up or not. That’s his job.

If there is a low wall next to the sidewalk, he will usually try to walk on top of it, rather than walk on the sidewalk. If he sees a slide, he will run up the steps and scoot down the slide, and if you don’t catch him when he lands, he’s liable to run up the slide and climb down the steps. If you take away the toy gun he found at the playground, he’ll try to shoot his buddy with a stick, and if you take away his stick, he’ll raise his arm, point his finger at him and say, “Bang! Bang!” Such is the nature of boys.

Your son’s sex causes him to behave in certain ways, and so do his temperament, personality and interests. But he still finds it hard to say what he wants at this age or why he wants it. Once you learn to read his cues, however, you can usually redirect his attention, thereby avoiding many of the power struggles that develop when a child is between 15 and 36 months.

There will still be times when your son goes wild, and then he must be disciplined. He needs to know what his limits really are, and so do those snarky mothers who have been judging every step he takes.

When you correct your son, please do it with respect and with empathy, as Kimberley Clayton Blaine so wisely recommends in “The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children” (Jossey-Bass, 2010). The book has a clumsy title, but it’s packed with good advice. To learn still more about lively children and how they grow, read the revised edition of “Raising Your Spirited Child” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka (Harper, 2006). It’s about sensitive, active, intense and perceptive children, and it’s excellent.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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