Boys and their Personal Brand

One night, more than 20 years ago, I was sitting at a bar with a friend, who was bemoaning the fact that he didn’t have a girlfriend. One of my favorite guys in the world. Smart. Fun. And truly decent. I remember telling him that he needed to change how he talked about himself.

“Girls don’t want to date a guy who thinks the best thing about himself is how many beers he can drink without throwing up.”

“But…” he smiled in spite of himself.

That night, I described to him how his friends saw him. “That’s what you should be saying too.”

Then last night, my fifteen-year-old had an assignment to fill a box with things that explain who he is, and I was immediately reminded of my friend.

My son filled his box with a Green Bay Packers t-shirt, a candy bar, a shoot ‘em up video game, a ski glove, and a golf ball (although he complains when we ski or golf).

And I thought, this is what you think is interesting about you?

I wish tonight’s follow-up assignment was: ask your mom to refill your box with things she thinks describes who you are. Then, let’s compare.

My box would include a hilarious joke, a souvenir from the Museum of Nature and Science, a photo with his brothers, a Lego Star Wars set, a toy tractor, a challenging math problem, a map, an Italian cookbook, and yes, his Packers t-shirt.

I might slip in a baby photo so everyone could see what a sweet, serious little man he was. Now, a 6-foot version of that, with all the cool things in this box picked up along his way.

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Best Friends

With Christmas Break at its half-way point, our guys were starting to pick on, and at, each other. Sarcasm laced dinner conversation. It was annoying. So, we challenged them to be nice for 24 hours. Every time we caught them being mean to one another, or sarcastic about the other, they paid me a dollar to help pay for a dinner out.

I was named, “the arbiter of niceness.”

In less than fifteen minutes, our ninth grader accumulated $7 in debt to the bucket. The eighth grader was lawyering up, as he tends to do, debating his $3. The fourth grader was grinning at $2.

And “best two dollars I ever spent,” said my husband as the dishes were cleared.

The funny thing is that our eighth grader is trying to decide whether to go to the high school he thinks he likes best, or the one his big brother goes to. It is a tough choice for him, because academics matter to him… a lot.

But they are each other’s best friends. We cannot imagine them apart. We cannot imagine one going through high school without the other. They will lift each other up, quietly in the background of any picture. The presence of one will inspire the other to engage.

When they were in elementary school, they walked the carpool line at the end of the day, each at their own speed. I remember feeling sad that the one didn’t race to catch up with the other even if both dragged along the sidewalk alone. And I remember that as soon as they were both in middle school, that changed. They were suddenly always side by side, sometimes with friends weaving in and out between them, sometimes not. I loved watching them talk as they approached the car, wondering what had them so animated until they spilled in, long legs and too-heavy backpacks, both talking at once.

They are not the same. They operate at completely different speeds, the one always begging the other to play football or basketball, and the other begging for peace. They perceive the world through their own lenses – different sports teams, politics, favorite classes, favorite foods, humor. And often watching them, we think that if we blended their opposites into one person, they would be absolutely unbeatable as they move through this world.

Together, despite the $10 of mean fees earned quickly at the dinner table, they are amazing. I hope it Is not long before they understand and celebrate how very rare – how important – their friendship is. Maybe in time to choose a high school.

Your Number One Job

Since our boys were very little, I have made sure they hear me say, “Your number one job in life is to be good to your brothers.”

In the closing weeks of summer vacation, I had to remind them often. They had spent too much time together, suddenly missed their friends, and with the older boys entering adolescence, I began to worry that my mantra was lost on them. “What’s your most important job on this planet?!”

But they just rolled their eyes.

Then, yesterday, after a few weeks back in the groove of school, the 12 and 13 year olds both showed me that they have been listening.

First, I heard from their Lego League teacher, who was in the process of creating two distinct teams for competition, that the older one had pulled her aside. He let her know quietly that all that matters to him is that he and his brother are on the same team. Even though his two best friends in the entire world are also in Lego League, he wants to share it with his brother.

Later in the day, I picked them up from soccer practice, after which they were delighted with themselves and each other. The younger one, and better athlete, had earned the “play of the day.” The older one had scored the winning goal – his first ever goal. Neither of them cared that their feats had been achieved in practice, not a game.

The younger one waited until we were alone to tell me that his brother “was so happy when he scored that goal. You should have seen him. And the whole team was happy. It was awesome.”

I whispered what I had heard from the Lego League teacher. “That’s because if I’m on his team, he knows we’ll win,” but his grin spread from ear to ear.

When He Runs and They Saunter…

My second grader climbs out of the car each morning and runs down the carpool line. Sometimes shoelaces untied. Sometimes his backpack still open, snack on the verge of spilling onto the sidewalk. Eager to crash into a friend before class starts.

At the end of the day, as I wait in carpool line again, I watch him race across the field – “it’s my shortcut” as if it were his own secret route – and back down the sidewalk to the open door of the minivan. Sometimes shoes untied. Sometimes yelling at other second graders as he passes. “Bye!” He is as eager to come home as he was to arrive at school.

When they were in lower school, our older two boys used to walk the carpool line morning and afternoon slowly, separately. They would get out of the car and after a quick hug, head into school, rarely waiting for their brother to finish his hug and catch up. It was as if they didn’t know each other.

But now, as the little one sprints across his shortcut, taunting his buddies, his brothers walk together. Slowly. They talk all the way down the line, sharing bits of their day, complaints about homework, feats achieved in gym. Since they look nothing alike, one might mistake them for best friends.

And every 8am and 3pm, that scene makes me happy.

Playing with Mom is Past

During the days surrounding Christmas at the family farm this year, I noticed a change in my role as mom. Not once did any of my three boys ask me to play.

They played eight games of Dog-opoly – one that went to almost 11pm, laughing, trading properties and gunning for Free Parking. They did not need me to keep it going or fair.

They played with Nerf guns and raced across the grass, strategized in the tree house and moved stealthily through the barn in imagined battles. But not once did my second grader hand me a weapon. Just this summer, I frequently found myself dodging chickens, Nerf gun in hand, as we went after the enemy. But with all three on the same side of the battle, they did not seek out another soldier.

They had a blast together. Three energetic brothers in a tree house take the game to a much higher level of fun.

And while that has always been the goal – raising three boys who are good brothers and friends – I felt a tremendous loss. Now what?

I am not ready to let go of playing with my sons, but admittedly excellent at Dog-opoly, I never made a good Nerf-toting, chicken-dodging soldier.

The Luckiest Guy

Our middle son climbed into the car looking a bit shaken. While we waited for his brothers to trudge down the carpool line, I asked if he was okay.

“It’s weird. My friends who have sisters keep telling me how lucky I am that I have brothers,” he paused. “Who knew?”

He was dead serious.

“Their sisters just stay in their rooms all day, and they don’t want to do anything.”

“Well, some girls like to do different things than you guys do, and they might not want to talk about football 24/7.”

He just shook his head, “I’m lucky,” still bewildered. “Who knew?”

Boy Humor at the Dinner Table

As my boys enter adolescence, dinner conversations go awry. Humor has shifted from goofy giggles over burps and farts to socially aware but unacceptable quips.

One night at dinner, don’t ask me how we got there, but… somehow we were talking about two kids in the same family with different mothers. No one we know personally. Just the concept.

“He’s my brother of another mother.” Lots of laughs.

I glared at them. “Where did you hear that?”

Everywhere,” said my sixth grader.

My husband, happily joining the fray, pointed out that “my sister from a different father” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so melodically.

“How about ‘sister from a different mister?!’”

High fives from the teenagers.

Frankly, I prefer burps and farts. And last night, no one even laughed when the seventh grader burped loudly after tacos.