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Sugar, Spice, Slugs and Snails

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By O.K. Pham           

My youngest son started kindergarten this year, so the other neighborhood parents and I rallied at the bus stop on the first day of school. A mother who was sending off her firstborn cried as the bus drove away. I tried to console her by saying it does get easier, and that by the time she sends her third kid off to school, there would only be tears of joy.

This cynicism is a hard-earned by-product of the fierce love I have for my four children -- two girls, aged 15 and 12, and two boys aged 10 and 5.

None had to endure the regimen of daycare, all because my husband and I have never been able to trust our kids to anyone else's care. The cord wouldn't be cut until they went to kindergarten.

Instead I took a pay cut to stay at home with them during their formative years. I can tell you that  full-time parenting offers its own crash course in sociology. 

The gender differences begin early and instinctively. Before we moved into our current home, the five of us were living in a three-bedroom place. The girls shared the spacious "pink room," while our son enjoyed his own "blue space" across the hall. A "baby brother" was on our 3-year-old son's Christmas wish list, which he finally got two years later. His initial joy of being a big brother faded when he had to move in with his sisters, because the baby needed his own nursery. The girls slept in bunk beds in one corner, and he still had his own bed -- but in a pink room! He begged us to paint his side blue, and we would have conceded had we not been able to find an incredible deal on a bigger house in the next town. Now each has his or her own room over which to assert territorial claims. Our 15-year-old daughter even managed to find a yellow "Caution: Do Not Cross" tape to plaster across her door.

When they were younger, the kids did play together a lot with their toys, though rarely peacefully. Against his sisters' protest, my older son would tie their Barbie doll to the back of his toy truck and make off with it down the hall. Up to the elementary-school years, the notions of who's first and what's fair constituted most of their squabbles. Now that they are older, arguments often erupt from one criticizing the way the other thinks and behaves. All are quick to comment on each other's character flaws. Interestingly enough, it often ends up as boys versus girls, and the cause of the fight is ultimately forgotten in the free-for-all.

While it's true that our girls are less reckless than the boys -- they never think to launch themselves off the second floor railing onto the "cushioned" landing below -- they are also less prone to tears when physical injury does occur. And somehow I have been found guilty of coddling the boys more than I should, especially during their earlier years. Between you and me, I'm convinced the boys just know how to tug harder at the heartstrings.

Another way our boys and girls differ is in their eating habits. The girls will eat when hunger dictates, whereas the boys eat when there's good food in the house, or whenever they are bored, which seems to be constantly. According to my older son, the five basic food groups should include chicken nuggets, sausages, cookies, chips and chocolate milk. When he was younger, he would ask to share my noodle soup, which was typically laden with fresh herbs and vegetables, in this specific way: "Just noodles, please -- no grass!" The girls enjoy eating peas and salads, but both boys won't touch anything green. My youngest does eat many different types of fruits, and all four kids willingly follow these simple household rules: drink lots of water and play soccer.

The last major difference lies in their choices of entertainment. Besides doing arts and crafts or working on jigsaw puzzles, the girls can occupy themselves for hours with a good book. My older son will complete the minimum half-hour of reading required for homework each night, but rarely more. He would much rather play on the computer, engage in a Nerf gunfight with his younger brother, or come up with these surprisingly complex Lego creations. Once in a while, they all gather together to watch a favorite movie. But the only instance where they consistently and peacefully unite is at chore time, since they know fighting with each other while cleaning will only get them more work.

They often trade chores with each other beforehand: One would rather put the dishes away than vacuuming, etc. What binds them together at these moments? I suspect it is simply that misery loves company.
             

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