Boy Meets Girls
I learned early on that guys with sisters make the best boyfriends. In fact, my first boyfriend had four sisters; my last (the man I married) has three. In between were a few sisterless duds, guys who spent their adolescence tongue-tied and flame-cheeked. A teenage boy with sisters, however, feels at ease around women; all those years of just hanging out and talking -- or, okay, fighting -- make it clear that adolescent girls are not, in their essence, alien life-forms. They're just people with breasts and a general indifference to the Three Stooges.
I certainly never meant to raise three sisterless boys. And yet here I am, my sons' sole source of up-close information about the female gender. And I admit, I haven't always done my job well. Riding home from his first day of preschool, then-3-year-old Henry announced, "Mary got a new wagon for his birthday. He's going to bring it to my house when I invite him over!"
"Honey, she's going to bring it," I said. "Mary's a girl, and when we talk about girls, we say 'she.'"
He was silent for a moment; I assumed he was trying to process this pronoun lesson. But then he asked, "What's a girl?"
Evidently Henry had decided there were exactly two categories of humanity, males and mommies. Never having seen a girl without her clothes on, he assumed that girls were just boys with ribbons in their hair. Even one sister would've cleared the whole thing up.Cootie-Free
There is one blessing of the sisterless house: None of my boys has ever suffered the ubiquitous grade-school conviction that members of the opposite sex carry cooties. With no sisters to fight with, my sons seem to accept girls with something of a shrug, in the aggregate neither better nor worse than boys. At the beginning of second grade last fall, Joe commented, "I don't get why the boys in my class won't play with girls anymore. Some of them are really good at kickball." As a matter of pure pragmatism, cootie aversion just doesn't work for Joe.
Henry's earlier confusion about Mary's gender notwithstanding, I thought we were in pretty good shape when Sam hit junior high a couple of years ago. True, he has no sisters, but I've been coaching him for years, constantly issuing subtle gender insights and advice: "When you break up with a girl, Sam, you have to find a way to preserve her dignity," and "Showing off won't make a girl think you're cool; it'll make her think you're an idiot."
And he mostly seems to get the point -- at least in the realm of the hypothetical. In real life, though, my advice tends to get drowned out by adolescent self-consciousness. Recently Sam came home from play practice, flopped on the sofa next to me and mumbled, "I think I might've messed up with Shannon."