Disclaimer: Gender is more fluid than fixed and while respecting biological, neurological and hormonal differences – there is not an ‘all boys or all girls reality.’ On top of that is social conditioning that is deeply embedded in culture and ancestry. So when I use the term boys I am referring to a statistically significant number of boys but much of what I say may also be relevant to some girls or gender diverse people. I encourage you to take what feels right for you and leave the rest.
The unhealthy pressures of the ‘Man Box’ where men have to be tough, stoic, show no vulnerability and be the best are softening. As Steve Biddulph explains in his book The New Manhood, healthy men need backbone and heart. We are still seeing so much more of the innate tenderness of men today and understanding the role of favourite things, may help you appreciate that many men have been hiding their sensitivity.
I explored ‘favourites’ for boys in my bestselling book, Mothering our Boys. The example I used was about asking a boy to get dressed for a special occasion like his Nanna’s 60th birthday. When the boy comes out with his favourite T-shirt with holes in it, really daggy jeans that have stains and holes and his worst pair of joggers, you could be mistaken for thinking that he never heard you. He not only heard you, he chose things that are his favourites in order to truly honour his grandmother’s special birthday.
When I was packing up our family home to move to the other side of Australia I asked my youngest son, who was 18 at the time, whether there was anything he wanted to keep with him rather than let me bring it with the rest of the family’s belongings. He claimed two precious books, his favourite picture books from when he was a pre-schooler – The Happy Digger and Franklin is Afraid of the Dark! Those two picture books have travelled across Australia and back to Western Australia, where he has just completed a medical degree. Still his favourites!
You will know when your son has become fond of a picture book because he will request it over and over again. Even though you believe it will be better to read other books, please stay with it. Something sacred is happening and there is more than a story being told.
Respecting his tender heart really does matter.
I had a tall, well-built farmer’s son as a boyfriend when I was in my 20s. He was a very keen sportsperson and very much an alpha male. He took great pride in showing me the football jumper he wore when he was 12. He told me clearly that he simply could not throw it out because it meant so much to him.
When I was working as a full-time counsellor, I worked with a man who had some serious anger issues. One of the painful memories that he explored one day, was the realisation that his mum and dad had not kept his favourite stuffed toy, a monkey. When he became a father at 32 years of age, he had gone to his parents to retrieve his monkey for his own child. When he discovered that they had thrown it out many years before, he took the news really badly. He thought they had known how precious the monkey was to him.
Well-worn favourites really do matter
There will be many parents who have discovered that their sons have favourite undies and even though they may have been purchased at the same time as his other undies, those others are clearly not his favourite. One of my sons would go without undies if his favourite undies were in the wash or he’d wear them over and over again! No amount of logic or reasoning could convince him to change his mind.
All of my sons have had favourite undies as grown men. I once visited one of the boys (27) and when I was hanging out the washing, the waistband from his favourite undies completely separated from the rest of the pants. When I brought them in to tell him that it was time to throw them out, he asked if I could use my sewing machine to fix them!
Forming a strong positive attachment to things that bring you joy, is healthy.
This is why we see so many little ones clutching onto special blankets, stuffed toys or other comforters. All children do this, however it is mainly little boys who develop these deep attachments to certain things that can seem quite irrational. I have heard many stories of little boys whose hearts have been broken because their mum threw out their special stick that was under the bed, or a special stone that they were keeping. It can be tricky because often they neglect to inform their parents just how special something is.
I have heard about boys who have slept with their new skateboard, body board or wetsuit for weeks because they loved it so much! Then it had to be kept in their bedroom to ensure it was close by!
Recently I was at the beach with my almost 5-year-old grandson and he found this large, thick branch that had been washed up on the beach. He dragged it around for ages and then decided to float it in a stream that was going out to sea. You could see he was conflicted when it started to float away from him. Fascinatingly, the branch was caught by waves that were coming into the beach and in a few minutes the branch was back on the sand. Well, my grandson must have decided that was a sign that the branch loved him. It took a lot of convincing that I could not fit it into the car and he was genuinely sad that his special branch had to be left at the beach!
I once worked with a little boy who was displaying significant distress that saw him being aggressive towards other children, very out of character. It took quite a bit of sleuthing by his parents to discover he had lost a particular figurine from his Duplo! He had many but apparently he really only liked one and he was heartbroken when it became lost. In a sense, these big ugly feelings were a form of grief and we know how much that hurts.
If you have a male co-parent, maybe have a chat with him about ‘favourites’. He may have forgotten where he has kept something he classes as favourite but he will remember something. Ask him about his favourite clothes and maybe you will guess because he wears them a lot!
I know a 38-year-old man who has kept his first car even though he has a new car … he just can’t part with the first vehicle he bought.
I hope this blog will help you be gentle around our boys of all ages as they may not behave as though they could be this sensitive — especially our rooster boys — but I am suggesting it is a sensitivity we can nurture and protect rather than misunderstand or make fun of. In my latest book Parental as Anything I explore roosters and lambs and the importance of temperament, just in case you are wondering what I am talking about! I’ve also got some other resources on roosters and lambs here.
Safekeeping special things
It can be helpful to create a special box for special things so that they can be easier to find and keep safe. This can also help siblings know where a boy’s boundaries are around things he has a special connection with and may reduce some sibling conflict.
If you are a parent or an early childhood educator you may now have more insight into what may trigger an apparent irrational meltdown of a little boy. Remember they can develop a strong bond quite quickly and find it hard to explain.
Please try not to throw things out without checking with your boy – as he doesn’t have a huge number of favourites, but just know that the ones he has, are loved deeply. With more understanding and compassion around the sensitivity of boys and men around their emotional attachment to things and stuff, we can help them feel more accepted and respected and of course loved unconditionally. We must be careful not to crush this tenderness just because we don’t understand it.