Credit: Sarah Smiley

Despite having two older brothers when I was growing up, I had very little insight into how boys think, especially about girls. I knew that boys sometimes did stupid things — like putting pencils in the microwave or climbing onto the two-story roof, all while Mom was gone, of course — but I was not privy to their conversations about dating and the opposite sex.

Today I’m raising all boys, two who are already teenagers and one who is almost there. Thanks to our small New England home (great for heating, not for keeping secrets), I hear most of the things that they discuss openly with their friends in the living room. While I’m in the kitchen making the crowd nachos or cookies (they are forever eating), they talk in the adjacent living room with surprising candor, and I’m often stunned to realize just how much I had mischaracterized boys when I was younger. If I’d had this kind of insight when I was a teenage girl, my life would have been so much easier.

In order to spare today’s teenage girls the same torment of figuring out teenage boys, here are some things I’ve learned while I listened from the kitchen. Naturally, the list below won’t apply to everyone because not all boys think the same way that my sons and their friends do. However, my boys have an odd mix of friends with different personalities and temperaments, so I’m gleaning information from a wide swath of the demographic.

They like it when you don’t wear make-up

Over and over again, the boys say how much prettier girls are without makeup. (I know. This goes against everything the fashion magazines would have you believe.) Of course, what the boys see as “no make-up” is probably just “very little makeup,” but they don’t understand that. The point is, my life would have been so much easier if I had known this back in high school. I remember watching 90210 and struggling for the right amount of blush to make my cheekbones look as high as Jennie Garth’s. So. Much. Wasted. Time.

They like you just the way you are

Speaking of wasted time: I also spent too many beautiful, sunny days inside my house, slaving over the “Cindy Crawford: Shape Your Body” exercise tape (a VHS!) because I thought no boy would like me unless my thighs and abs were just right. However, I can assure you that I’ve never once heard the boys or their friends ever say anything about anyone being fat or skinny, toned or flabby. They usually talk about how friendly a particular girl is or how easy it is to talk to her. They talk about girls being smart or athletic or talented. Honestly though, it appears that the most important attribute is friendliness, because boys are often intimidated by girls (see below).

They recognized you much later than you recognized them

Most boys in 8th grade and up are new to the “dating” game. Since about 4th or 5th grade, girls have been passing boys notes asking “do you like my friend?” but the boys remain pretty clueless. They just want to go home and play Fortnite with their friends and talk about Star Wars. Around 8th grade, however, they catch up to you and suddenly realize that you look a lot different than you did in kindergarten. By then, you are well adept at the who-likes-who thing, and they are struggling to catch up. At 13 years old, they still don’t know what to say to you or how to show that they like you. So they do stupid things (like putting pencils in microwaves).

They are sometimes confused by you

Here is an actual conversation that took place in my living room:

Teenage Boy 1: “When a guy likes a girl, it’s pretty obvious [writer’s note: it’s not], but when a girl likes a guy, she’ll text him and say ‘I just painted my nails’.”

Teenage Boy 2: “I know! What are we supposed to do with that? What does it mean?”

Teenage Boy 3: “I’d probably just write back and say, ‘Yes, I brushed my teeth today, too’.”

They are nervous, too

The boys talk a big game and act macho when girls are around, but inside they are still little boys who are terrified of being rejected by you. They feel big things, just like girls do. And they get hurt, just like girls do.

It’s a tough world out there, but these sons of mine have shown me that boys aren’t as goofy or mysterious as I once believed. Of course, someone out there with all girls might have a similar list of all the ways boys are confusing to girls or what girls are really looking for. I imagine that starts with “not putting pencils in microwaves or climbing onto the second-story roof.”