The so-called simplicity of boys

By Ashley Lefrak Grider

We have a boy, two years old. Another boy, also two, lives next door. Across the courtyard is a family with two more boys, one of whom is two. And one door further down, there is a family with an older girl and a younger boy. He’s two, too.

We all live in the units known in the neighborhood as “Slum Ledge.” Kind of a joke, because it’s not so bad, but the housing is old, cold in winter, hot in summer, and so if it’s not actively dumping rain, all the kids, naturally, go outside.

Watching these boys it is hard not to develop certain theories. Theories about boys. Theories about parents. Theories about siblings and sibling spacing. Also, theories about daycare versus no daycare. Theories about the effect of weather on behavior. Theories about the effect of numbers upon kindness. Theories about boys. Theories about violence.

What I’ve noticed is our boy plays happily with the boy across the way, inconsistently with the boy next door, and not at all with the boy two doors down who throws rocks and grabs toys and swings sticks so large they are, more accurately, branches. Once I saw this boy leave his house, no parents in sight, wielding a metal pipe.

The boy next door is most content playing alone. Often he runs in circles as if illustrating with a shape his self-reliant nature. He has, more than once, been pushed to the ground, or had a rock thrown toward his head by the metal pipe boy. Occasionally I see him playing half-heartedly along the outskirts of the older, mostly girl children in the courtyard. When he plays with anyone his age, he appears to gravitate toward our boy. He once told his mother, who in turn told me, that he likes how my son is “gentle with his body.”

The boy who causes the bulk of trouble doesn’t appear to enjoy anyone’s company. He is aggressive no matter who is playing nearby, ramming trucks into unsuspecting shins, swinging sticks at innocent knees. So maybe it’s just that he enjoys everyone’s company the same, which is not very much. Or, maybe it’s just that he has an older brother, and he is trying out, briefly, what it means to be in charge.

My husband tells me that boys are simple. They resolve their conflicts in straightforward ways. I’m curious, almost eager for this to be true. I’m also skeptical. To prove his point, he tells me a story about two boys in his elementary school who fought frequently. One day, he overheard the smaller of the boys say, “I don’t feel like fighting today.” The larger one looked around, noticed other children were watching, and said, “Fine! Eat that caterpillar.” The boy who didn’t want to fight ate the caterpillar and they never fought again.

“See? Simple!” my husband proclaims. “No talking it out, no sideways manipulation, none of that crazy girl stuff.”

Because my husband grew up a boy, during which time I suspect he learned a few things, I try to be open to the possibility that there’s a logic to the caterpillar story, and it’s a simple one, and the whole thing was resolved, as he claimed, and there was peace. Still, I resist. I can’t help but wonder about motivating emotions, and underlying feelings, and residual anger. I can’t help but think ideas about simplicity mask ideas about masculinity, and what is, and isn’t, okay to feel. I don’t want simple if simple isn’t what’s there. Neither, however, do I want to obscure—through my undeniably female eyes—what I don’t properly comprehend.

While my husband finds the caterpillar exchange an illustration of what is simple about boys, I find it the opposite. One boy bending to another’s (mean, manipulative, crazy!) demands feels, if anything, complicated. Instead of convincing me of their straight-forwardness, his story only adds to my sense that boys interact in nuanced ways that, because I did not grow up a boy, deserve careful study. I sense there are signs and symbols exchanged in the hypothetical Land of Boy, full of meaning, and that I don’t yet understand the language.

Lately, I’ve tried to think less about theories, both my husband’s and mine, and observe more. It turns out for example, I noticed recently that the aggressive boy is less aggressive than normal when he plays with the boy across the way. My boy is reserved with the circle boy, assertive with the aggressive boy, and to my continued confusion, maintains a steady measure of surprise when the boy across the way takes his things.

Watching these boys in the courtyard, I realize I’m not just the parent of a two-year-old, but just two years into this whole thing myself, mother-wise. I’d say pretty firmly, the role thus far has knocked any faith in simplicity right out of me. If there are conclusions to be drawn at this stage, they are all tentative. So I’m not looking for a Grand Unified Theory of Boys anymore because I no longer believe Grand Unified Theories go with being a parent, to anyone.

While we can’t help but come up with a few theories as we go because we are humans, and we take comfort in patterns, I’m convinced that understanding the world of my boy, or your girl, or that other woman’s boy-that-identifies-as-a-girl, is grasped only through an ongoing encounter that’s unapologetically steeped in complexity.

Seeing things this way inevitably involves a fair measure of confusion, and potential misperception, and botched attempts at meaningful action. And yet, I now move forward with the belief that this not-unified, un-theory approach is better than the perspective I used to have, the one that had me proudly sporting, throughout my twenties, a t-shirt emblazoned with a quote attributed to Einstein: “Beyond complexity, lies simplicity.”

I’ve since convinced myself this must be a mis-quote largely because I don’t buy it, and Einstein was a fairly clever guy. There’s another line he’s credited for, though, one that seems much more accurate to me. It’s this: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” As I continue figuring out how to be a mother to my son, that seems about right, for now.

Ashley Lefrak Grider is a writer, photographer, and mother of two really quite simple boys (kidding). She is working on an essay about swimming, or drowning, she hasn’t figured out which. You can find her in digital form at, or in real life, walking by a creek somewhere, searching alongside her sons for rocks that seem “awesome.”

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