One thing I've learned in parenting boys is that they thrive on competition. These days, it seems that every activity in our house must include some competitive element for it to be worth the undertaking. For example, this is a typical exchange between me and my boys:
Me: "Does anyone want to help Mommy sort the laundry?"
First Son: "Let's make a race out of it, and the first to finish gets to call himself Grandmaster of the Laundry."
Second Son: "Do we earn points for every pair of socks that we match?"
Third Son: "Can we trade points for candy?"
The other night, I overheard my 8-year old instructing his brothers on the rules of what I like to call "Bathletics". This is a nightly ritual that occurs when obedient children in other homes quietly take their baths. In our house, however, my boys compete in an Olympic style event that involves holding your breath under water while trying to splash water far enough to hit the mirror over the vanity, and various other useless and time-consuming feats of athleticism. My firstborn had created an elaborate scoring system to judge the performance of his brothers, with its own array of penalties as well as titles to be achieved.
On this evening, the three older boys were sitting on the edge of the bathtub. They had added a new event to their competition: Make a circle around the bathtub by scooting around the edge without using one's hands, while keeping both feet planted in the bath water. One of them was timing the event with a stopwatch, and another was judging his brothers' form by calling out numbers.
"You've made a mess!" I cried, looking at the puddles of water on the tile.
"Mom, we're in the middle of something," my 8-year old informed me.
"I'm about to win!" my 6-year old exclaimed, scooting his bottom in a frantic fashion.
"Your form is all wrong!" his older brother shouted, "I'm giving you a '7' because you're using your hands!"
"Disqualify him!" my 3-year old chimed in.
"How does he even know the word 'disqualify'?" I interjected. But by now, the three of them were so fervently embroiled in their own argument that you'd think they were senators investigating steroid use in major league baseball.
It was at that moment when I started to wonder whether all the chess tournaments, piano competitions and karate belt tests were having a negative impact on the boys. After all, they have been immersed in extracurricular activities that involve the earning of points, titles, certificates, even colors. So I turned to my resident expert on boy behavior, and asked my husband if I should be concerned. He gave me the usual look of incredulity and replied matter of factly: "They're boys. That's what boys do."
I love my husband for always giving me the simplest answer (that also happens to be the correct one), because he knows I can complicate any parenting dilemma by overthinking. Then I looked at my boys, who were now clearly having the time of their lives rating each other on their splash technique, and realized (for the nth time) that when raising boys, I need to stop thinking like a girl.
The truth is, my boys become invigorated when there is a prize to be earned. All this time, I had been afraid that applying standards and measurements would create an unhealthy atmosphere of competition between them, when competition, in fact, is what makes their lives interesting. So the next time one of my boys asks if he and his brothers can race to finish their vegetables, I'll tell him, "First one can be called King of the Broccoli."