Friday, July 03, 2009

Boys and their toys

The other day an old friend asked me how she should go about making sure she isn't raising the kind of boy other boys would make fun of because he wasn't "manly enough". Her husband is serving in Iraq and she's going it alone in Hawaii with their one and only son. She adores him and they apparently go and do together quite a bit. She was planning on taking the two of them on a vacation to one of the other islands together but was growing concerned about all the "mommy time". "Your boys seem so normal and well adjusted," she said. "Do you have any thoughts on this?"

I may be the wrong mother to ask, I replied (once I stopped laughing over the use of the word "normal). As two former (?) nerds, Gary and I are doing our darndest to combine our genetics and raise a new and improved generation of pocket protector-wearing, star gazing, goggle-eyed geniuses. Combine this with my earth-child, tree hugging, tie-dye loving genetics and what you get is four very interesting people, though hardly the norm, and I'm good with that.

I assured her that she was probably already doing the right things and going on vacation with just his mom at the age of twelve would likely not scar him for life. I suggested she point out the actions of the good men around her and not save him too quickly from challenges, and be careful about making broad statements about men in front of him. Most other boys will be just fine with him and he would have both his friends and his detractors just like the rest of us.

But her question did make me think about our approach to raising boys to be "manly" men. I wish I could tell you we went at this in an organized fashion with specific carefully mapped out goals in mind. Unfortunately, that would be a lie. A good part of parenthood is about surviving from day to day and dealing with the fires as they pop up. Yes, we worry about their characters, but in action it really it looks more like--

Me (confronting a child with a half-eaten plate of pancakes in front of him): "Did you steal your brother's pancakes?"

Child (with telltale syrup around mouth): "No."

Me (kicking self for giving the child an opportunity to lie)--"Lets try this again. Why did you take your brother's pancakes when you said you didn't want any an hour ago?"

Child (now realizing he's been caught): "He said he didn't want them."

Outraged sibling: "I did not!"

Child: "You did too!"

OS: Did not!"

Me to Both: Stop it. Stop it now.

Me to Child: You--I guess you don't need anything else to eat. Leave the table--now. I don't care if you're still hungry. Next time don't lie.

Me to OS: You--for future reference--just in case you did--don't give away your food without asking me first. Unfortunately I'm out of pancake batter. How about peanut butter and jelly?" (Scene ends with both children wailing and me quietly beating my head against a cabinet door)

Note the lack of serene June Cleaverness of this scene. Note also that neither of my children was the Beaver either.

Over all though, I'd say we've done okay. But our philosophy has not always been a unified and sometimes produced some serious differences (Note lastly that there is no Ward Cleaverness happening here either). Our upbringings had a lot to do with this. Gary's mom is German who kept an impeccable house and his dad is an old fashioned, traditional Kansas farm boy who taught him that boys don't do anything that makes them look weak or feminine. On the other hand, my own father and stepfather cooked and my dad even cleaned house and could sew a mean button. My mom handled power tools like a pro and bought all of us girls tool sets after we went off to college. I may have my criticisms of how my parents did some things and, like a lot adults I've dealt with and put rest a lot of unresolved issues, but they got this part of parenting right.

So when our boys came along I did what made sense to me according to my experience as an early childhood educator and my upbringing. Gary was mostly good with this when they were small, but as they began to walk and talk and play, he began to speak up. The first major difference surfaced over toys.

The boys had a fairly wide variety to choose from--trucks and cars, art supplies, blocks of all kinds, legoes, board games, sports equipment, and stuffed animals. I nixed toy guns and toys which encouraged hitting (like those big air filled punching bags). Gary only put up a mild argument over this, making me promise that when they hit twelve that he could take them hunting if he wanted to. I agreed largely because my primary concern was in teaching them that killing is not a game and that violence is a last resort, not a form of entertainment.

The problem began with the parade of security objects. Well, not all of them. Just one in particular. When Jeremiah was about a year old my mom presented Jeremiah with a handmade stuffed dog which he promptly dubbed "Dog-dog". Dog-dog saw Jeremiah through fear of the dark, monsters under the bed, a new baby brother, and numerous other adventures. Gary only grumbled when he observed Jeremiah pretending to "nurse" Dog-dog while I fed Daniel. He compensated by spending more time wrestling with Jeremiah and throwing balls with him in the backyard. Daniel had numerous favorite stuffed animals, including his own Grammy-made version of Dog-dog, named Patch. I think he bonded with every single one of his toys. But Joe was on a different frequency. He loved dinosaurs and actually slept with a large hard plastic Tyrannasaurus Rex for a while. The Terrible Lizard made quite a few appearances at the breakfast table and watched a lot of Sesame Street. Gary was quietly delighted--here was a typical little boy in his book. Sam's favorite toy was a Barney dressed in over-alls. Ever practical, at the age of five Sam decided he was too old for Barney and gave him to me as a gift, asking if he could come in and visit with him from time to time. Barney lives on my dresser next to my own ancient Snoopy (who--by the way-- I still visit with from time to time).

Gary was good with all of this and even played along with it to some degree (even driving all the way across St Louis to retrieve Dog-dog at four AM when he was left a friend's house). The clearest difference of opinion was marked by the moment Joe, at the age of three, put aside his dinosaur, and asked for a doll for Christmas.

I was pleased and immediately contacted my mother who happily set about making him one. I assumed that Gary would go along with this as he had the rest of the parade. I couldn't have been more wrong. Gary wasn't pleased. He wasn't pleased at all. In fact, we actually had a big (big) argument about it. Initially, he tried to put his size-thirteen foot down with "an absolutely no way-no how" and no explanation. Then I put my size seven down too--on top of his. I explained that both of my brothers had dolls and were both "men's men" adults and studies everywhere indicated that boys benefit from playing with toys that teach them that men can be nurturers too. "Why on earth do you have a problem with this?", I asked. At first, he refused to elaborate. His feelings should be enough, he said. "No, they aren't, not without a sound reason," I replied. Finally he gave me a very detailed and depth response: Boys don't play with dolls, that's why.

Yeah. That certainly explained everything.

His closed mindedness caught me a little by surprise, but the strength with which I took up the fight caught him off guard as well. Generally we strike compromises on issues like this, but we reached an impasse--which basically meant that Joe would get the doll, but Gary wouldn't be happy about it and I would pay for it with small critical comments over the ensuing weeks.

Joe was thrilled to receive a doll made by his grandmother who wisely dressed it in blue. He immediately named it "Eyes" (because the eyes opened and closed and Joe was three and had never seen this before). Seeing Joe's reaction (which was far above his response to the trucks, cars, dinosaurs, and duplo-bricks), seemed to soften Gary a little. The biggest part of it was that my mom had made it for him and, even at three, Joe sensed the love behind gestures like handmade objects.

A few days later, Joe asked Gary to hold Eyes for him. Champ that he is, Gary took the doll in his arms.

"Where are you going?" He asked Joe who proceeded to get on his toy three wheeler and push his way across the floor.

"To work," Joe replied. "Like you."

Gary's eyes widened.

Wisely, I said nothing, but inside I was jumping up and down. Joe wasn't mimicking me. He was pretending to be like his favorite guy--his Dad. And in his head, Dad helped with the babies and went to work. What a compliment. Joe and Eyes did everything together that Gary did with the boys--wrestling, reading books, coloring pictures, sitting in the rocking chair. Gary never brought up the inadvisability of the doll ever again.

Male friends weren't as understanding. One, a fellow musician, sharply criticized me for it. "I can't believe you're letting your son play with a doll!" he said with surprising intensity, telling me I was setting Joe up for all kinds of problems. Like Gary he couldn't say why not without sounding like a complete jerk so we were stuck with "because boys don't" and I told him to come out of the dark ages and grow up. Another friend tried to tease Joe about being a "baby" when he saw the doll. You can bet I shut that one down fast (that friendship didn't last long). And my father . . . well . . . sew a mean button or not . . . it's just a good thing he lives three thousand miles away.

Joe and Eyes were buddies for quite a while, but as is common to kids everywhere, he did outgrow him and move on to other things like bicycles, computers, martial arts, books, and girls. As it turned out, no one was the worse for the wear, except maybe a couple of supposedly grown men.

Did playing with a doll make now fourteen year old Joe who he is? I can't say for sure. I can say that Joe likes kids enough to consider being a teacher. That he wants children of his own and lots of them, and that he is surprisingly sensitive to other people's feelings. But perhaps he would have been all of that anyway. Perhaps playing with Eyes was a response to who he already was. Nature versus nurture? Maybe some of both

So the upshot of the answer to the question "Are my sons going to be manly enough?" is that I think they are. But I think my definition of "manly" may look a little different. In my opinion, what makes a man "manly" has absolutely nothing to do with with unwillingness to cry, physical strength, speed, or being tough, or buff, etc. I do believe that good men know how to overcome themselves and do what's right when other choices are easier or more appealing. The men I admire have a strong sense of right and wrong and don't compromise. They do what they've been given to do to the best of their ability.

To be honest with you, as a very happily married woman, I am rarely distracted, but I confess that I am drawn to decency and I believe I know it when I see it. I believe that nice guys do finish first, succeed at the important things in life, and can be president. I think they're committed husbands and involved fathers and hard workers. This is the kind of manly I want my sons to aspire to. And I believe we're right on track.


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

To flip the question backwards, I can't imagine children growing up all *sissified* without lots of training. Boys simply are who they are. I can't imagine having a girly kid even if I wished to. Even my GIRL pulls her hairbows out and eats them. Not sure how to solve that one, but I'm pretty sure the answer to this mystical question will not be found on this blog. :]

Debby said...

I always figured that you simply focus on raising good people, and just let the gender issues take care of themselves.

Scotty said...

Ah, gender stereotyping - "It's always been that way" or "It's traditional" or "It just confuses the kids" - sorry, but I'll call BS on that one. My two boys and my daughter were all taught that it's healthy to share one's toys and that playing together, taking on an opposing role to tradition would help them understand things better as they grew up - walking the mile in another person's shoes, kinda.

And besides, it's been my experience these days that for women anyway, they consider men to be more manly when they are indeed, man enough to demonstrate their softer, nurturing side on the occasions when it's obvious that it's necessary, and perhaps more so, when men can do this without being 'prompted'

It's unfortunate that the gender stereotyping is still so ingrained into our society that a lot of men still cringe at trying to show a softer side simply because there are still a lot of people (men and woman alike) who chide them for being unmanly in doing so. Unless (or until) some community mindsets change pace at the same rate as individuals, it's sad but true that this will likely continue for some time.

I think it's also sad at times that we often don't credit children with being more intelligent, more discerning, and more open to change than we perceive them to be. "Just because" has always been a poor excuse for anything in my book - try something different; it won't kill you (jumping from a plane without a parachute notwithstanding).


Anonymous said...

still don't have my own blog, Mary; but still enjoy checking in on yours: always interesting, always real ~ thanks for the bright spot!

Anonymous said...

I am with Debby. Raising good people who are respectful of others, the community and themselves irrespective of gender.

Mary O. Paddock said...

Hi Mrs C! I think they are too. LOL on the hair ribbon. I think my mother complained about something similar.

Debby--I agree. Though I have been concerned about them seeing what good fathers and husbands look like.

Scotty--I know I went looking for a man who liked children enough to play tea party and trucks with equal gusto. I got that with Gary so I was certainly surprised by his knee jerk response. However he clearly got over it. :)

Eileen! I wondered where you'd gotten to. Thanks for stopping in.

RH--For the most part, me too. :)