If you give a boy some sticks... - FamilyEducation

If you give a boy some sticks...

June 01,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

My freshman comp students just finished reading this essay, which afterwards prompted a lively discussion on gender roles. A student pointed out, rightly so, that the saying "boys will be boys" has no counterpart for girls. We don't ever say "girls will be girls" and shrug away their behavior because we don't need to justify it to ourselves or to others. In her essay Sommers warns against attempts to "resocialize" boys in the name of promoting gender equality between the sexes. Pushing sameness on boys and girls is unhealthy--boys and girls are different, she points out, and they play differently. We need to celebrate the differences and work within them, not against them.

That boys and girls play differently is certainly not a news flash to any parent who is raising both a son and a daughter. Years ago, before I became a parent or was even pregnant with my first child, I read some social-psychologically-based article on gender and the nature/nurture debate and I thought to myself right then that if I had a boy some day I would buy him a doll, and maybe a dollhouse, and I'd play sensitive pretend-play games with him and we would never ever allow any toy weapons of any kind in our house. Ever.

And L. did love his yard sale cabbage patch knock-off baby we got him when he was three, and I was pregnant with T. He was also delighted at age two when I set up my old Lundby dollhouse in the family room downstairs. Fast forward a few years to when L. was four, and I was sitting outside in our front yard, watching him play. I looked up from my book and saw that he was making something interesting out of a long stick and a piece of blue yarn.

"What's that, buddy?" I asked. Was it a musical instrument? An airplane? A kite?

"Look Mama!" He said, proudly. "It's a BOW AND ARROW so I can go fight!" 

I had to gulp away my horror and I tried to redirect the direction his creative handiwork was taking. Wouldn't you rather turn it into a flying machine? Or a violin?( No and No.)

I felt badly, though, looking back, that I did try and redirect him instead of praising him up front about his creation. It was a really nice bow and arrow and he was only four. I was thrown, though, by where the idea had come from in the first place. Was the need to craft a weapon out of sticks genetically encoded into his DNA? If you give a little boy sticks and string will he always turn it into a weapon? More than likely he had seen something like that in a book, and was possessed with the need to recreate the image--something he still does today, through drawing and making 3-D models with his Sketch-Up program on the computer. Sommers' essay, though, and her account of her son's experience in the Negev Dessert, brought back the memory of L.'s bow and arrow, as it had been just yesterday.

L. is almost 11, and his sister, 7. She makes dolls out of sticks and acorn cups and scraps of yarn for the hair, of course. We still model sensitivity and empathy to L. like there's no tomorrow--but not because we're afraid that if we don't his masculinity will explode, unleashed, upon an unsuspecting society. We also model sensitivity and empathy to T., too, because no one can ever get enough of those things, no matter who you are. Sensitivity training shouldn't be only for our boys. I know a few girls here and there who could benefit from it. Today L. is also the proud owner of four different light sabers, and four Nerf blasters and an electronic target, which hangs on his bedrom wall. He also has a bucket of little green plastic soldiers, and an impressive collection of Star Wars action figures, armed with tiny plastic blasters of their own. Sometimes I look back and squirm a little, feeling like we sold out and caved to a shameful marketing industry that compartmentalizes boys and girls and perpetuates dangerous stereotypes. Other times, though, I just see my son--sensitive and thoughtful-- artistic, too, just having a great time, in his own world, with his boy things.

And T. can hold her own with a light saber, too.