June 21, 2018
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Cousin’s visit brings lessons about girls

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

There are many advantages to having children all of the same gender. One is hand-me-downs. Another is eventually they can all play on the same sports team (less driving). The biggest advantage, however, is emotional equilibrium (also an Achilles’ heel — read on). In other words, I know what to expect.

Sure, my three boys each are unique — in one word, Ford is focused, Owen is observant, and Lindell is … well, he’s a wild card — but in a broader sense, they are very much alike. Or, at least, they handle things similarly. I’ve learned how to adapt.

A typical fight at the Smiley house goes like this: Ford tells Lindell he’s probably adopted. Lindell cries hysterically, then says, “Yeah, well you’re stupid.” Owen tells them both to be quiet. Lindell slaps Owen. Ford yells at both of them. They go outside and play baseball.

When I try to intervene, they mock me.

Me: “Ford, you’ve hurt Lindell’s feelings and made him wonder about his place in this family. Tell him you’re sorry.”

Ford: “Lindell, I’m sorry you don’t look like any of us.”

Me: “No, that’s not what I — geez! Can’t you just hug and make up?”

Lindell (smiling): “Ford, I’m sorry you’re so stupid.”

Ford (smiling): “I’m sorry that both of you are losers.”

Owen (laughing uncontrollably): “And I’m sorry I’m better than both of you.”

Me (confused, frustrated): “Can’t you guys have a conversation? Can’t you help each other instead of hurting each other?”

Lindell: “OK. Owen, tell me, does this shirt make me look like a jerk?”

I’ve often thought a girl would help balance things out, teach the boys a thing or two. Thankfully, earlier this month, the boys’ younger, female cousin arrived for a two-week vacation in Maine. What a difference a girl makes. Her hair smelled sweet, not sweaty. Her clothes matched. She had a baby doll instead of headless action figures. She sat and watched me put on makeup.

Bonus: within eight hours, she had all three boys, plus Ford’s friend, circled around a stump by the lake, on which she was standing, her hands on her hips, giving directions. The boys followed, completely under the spell of her girlish powers. (A girl; how novel!) She said “sit,” and they sat, even though they were puzzled as to why.

After a few days, however, other differences between my boys and my niece became clearer. When the boys play, they make rigid rules and a plan. Sometimes, even, they chart this on a clipboard. My beautiful niece has an elaborate, wonderful imagination, and she likes to pretend. Her plan is more fluid, her interactions more one-on-one. This I could understand. My boys could not.

One week into the visit, Lindell came running onto the back porch with tears on his red, frustrated face. “I don’t even understand what she’s saying,” Lindell cried. “She says I’ve done things, but I don’t even understand or remember. I’m so confused!”

My other brother (not my niece’s father) said, “Well, Lindell, that certifies her as being completely female. Get used to it.”

Meanwhile, my niece smiled up at us and said, “Lindell, want to go outside and play again?”

Lindell shrugged his shoulders.

“Sure,” he said.

They would play quietly for a few minutes, and then another verbal argument would erupt:

“I didn’t do it.”

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.”

“I don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore!”

They played best when they played house. Lindell was the daddy and worked at Walmart, until it “ran out of business.” Then he stayed home and “watched football all day.” My niece (the mommy) didn’t like that. Lindell had to work. Lindell found a job “catching bad guys.” All was right in the world. An hour later, Lindell was his cousin’s dog, and she dropped him off at day care. He didn’t seem to mind. She was happy; therefore, he would be, too.

So long as there was a plan, Lindell understood how to participate. As soon as too much conversation was involved, he came back frustrated and crying. His constant refrain: “I get so confused.”

My brother and I would hold our breath as the kids played, and then it was something like “rock, paper, scissors” for who would go settle the next fight. It seemed like the cousins were not playing well together. We all said, “Just wait until next year; they will be older and more mature.”

Secretly, though, I thought, my boys need to learn how to be around girls.

The day after my niece left, Lindell walked onto the spot of dirt where they had made sandcastles the week before. “Gosh, I miss her,” he said.

I texted that to my brother and added, “… even though he fought with her the whole time.”

My brother wrote back: “She says they didn’t fight (smiley face).”


Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

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