Boys and Toys

We let Joshua play with whatever he likes, by and large. I draw the line at things like fire and knives and electricity, pretty much. Beyond that, we’re not particular. When I am in Target with him, I don’t steer him away from the aisles clearly being marketed as containing “girl toys” over to the aisles clearly being marketed as “boy toys”. Joshua could give two shits about Transformers, but he likes horses and shopping carts and babies and he’s a fan of Cinderella because he went to a party once and she was painting faces and it’s clear he’s aware that someone he saw in person up close is totally on a lot of toys.

This is in no way a statement on the toys, or Joshua. It is a statement that he has no life experience with giant robots. He has, however, ridden a pony, enjoys pushing shopping carts, has a baby brother and, as I mentioned, knows Cinderella.

At home we have Joshua’s little Craftsman toy work bench shoulder-to-shoulder with his toy kitchen. He’s got the same pink baby stroller his friend has because he wanted a stroller to pretend like he was pushing a baby around and pink is the only color they make (I know I’m making it sound like I have something against pink — which I don’t because to paraphrase a tweet from Nathan Fillion “Would a real man be afraid of a color?” — but it’s more to illustrate the degree of pigeonholing in kid toys). He picked a Hello Kitty Happy Meal over a Transformers one because his cousins love Hello Kitty and he knows who she is and when I ordered it I stated very plainly that he wanted, as they phrase it, the girl Happy Meal.

I have no intention to steer Joshua towards typically male toys. In many cases I’d rather do the opposite. He has a Captain Hook pirate sword which is very cool, but that also means playing with it involves sword fighting which is dodgy even when you have great hand-eye coordination. He has an Iron Man glove that pews out little projectiles (also pretty cool), but we try hard not to have him thinking that shooting things is okay to do. But in general I would prefer he choose his favorite toys based on what engages him, not some notion I may have of how he should play.

We are already having to battle this notion, though. He’s not even three and is already coming home with ideas that certain things are for boys and certain things are for girls, which is not a lesson he’s picking up at home. It follows then that he’s learning this sort of gender breakdown from other children ages 5 and under. We try to point out that really the only things that are boys-only and girls-only are public bathrooms. I imagine we’ll lose ground fairly steadily on this issue, but we point out whenever it comes up that it’s not really the case that things need to be different for boys and girls when it comes to what they are interested in and how they play.

It’s clear that this is not a standard outlook. It’s very common that if I am out somewhere and a father sees his boy pick up a “girly” toy that he has to loudly announce “Oh, you gotta pick up the pink one, huh?” and then laugh so everyone around knows that he’s not TRYING to turn his kid into a little nancy but kids just do dumb shit sometimes.

When Joshua was walking around with a friend’s little baby carriage toy I had a Dad tease me that “Uh oh. He picked the baby carriage” like that’s some signal I need to look out for.

What signal would that be, exactly? That he has a baby brother? That he has friends with baby siblings? That he has a father actively involved in raising two children? That he enjoys trying to nurture and love something? Oh noes! But it’s not those things. It’s the signal that he’s doing something effeminate. That he’s doing something gay.

This irks me on all sorts of levels. For starters, the only reason this choice is seen as suspect is the notion that caring for a child is a woman’s work and that doing that same work is somehow capable of making a man less of a man – and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know my thoughts on that [Hint: angry thoughts]. And, doubling down, it implies that engaging in “feminine work” is somehow also a leading indicator of homosexuality because science. It also implies that something as basic as the particular toy that a child has chosen to play with one afternoon for 15 minutes is indicative of what their life will become forever after.

The pièce de résistance is that it implies that a gay son is something you don’t want to have.

I’m a firm believer that homosexuality is not, generally speaking, a choice. Sure there are those who may end up actively choosing one over the other, but I think the vast majority of gay men and women simply are gay men and women. (If you believe otherwise, ponder this: When did you first decide to be straight? or did that just kind of happen?) So that means that if Joshua is going to be gay—even if it will be ages before he knows it himself—that’s written into his little internal code right now.

I give approximately no shits about this.

I don’t worry that he may be gay, I worry that if he is maybe I’ll be less good at giving advice about boyfriends than girlfriends, never having had a boyfriend myself. That’s about the extent of it.

I don’t have two girls, so I can’t really speak to the experience on the other side of the table, but I get the impression it’s not the same (and some quick polling of friends with two girls supports this). Oh sure, you maybe have that crushing patriarchal construction that little girls should aspire to be mommies and caregivers and have toys that focus on being pretty and shopping, but I don’t think anyone is giving Mom and Dad a sideways glance if little Elizabeth is playing with a truck.

I find it more than a little depressing that it seems to me that boys especially seem to get pushed to play with certain toys and focus on certain interests simply because parents are worried about who their child may grow up one day to love. How many boys grow up thinking that wanting to hold a baby or bake something is somehow wrong for them to do? How many little doors get closed that way?

Joshua will almost certainly fall into the pattern that just about all boys do. He’ll like to wrestle. He’ll be into superheroes. He’ll love Star Wars and trucks and Legos and blowing things up. I’m not so intense about this issue that I feel the need to force the issue upon him to the extent that things would start getting pretty ironic (“Don’t play with what society tells you to, play with what I tell you to, dammit”). So, boys gonna boy. But what I am going to make damn sure he understands is that other choices are not wrong in any way so long as they don’t hurt others. Girls have access to all the same toys boys do and vice versa. Boys hold babies. Boys cook meals. Boys clean the house. Girls build towers. Girls sword fight. Girls like to blow shit up. He’ll know that these choices are available to everyone and that making those choices will never have to define him, or anyone around him.

  1. #1 by J-Dawg on May 22, 2013 - 10:47 AM

    “Uh oh. He picked the baby carriage”

    The correct response to this is, “At least he didn’t get stuck with the asshole father.”

  2. #2 by Vic L on May 22, 2013 - 2:54 PM

    I absolutely agree with this and the parental philosophy behind it. I detest the fact that there’s a portion of our society that feels that part of shaping your child’s behavior involves shaping masculinity or femininity. The idea that those are the gatekeepers to homo/heterosexuality drive me batty and I want to do the “boy” thing and blow some shit up.

    I’m not a parent yet but I’d absolutely follow the same philosophy. The thought that strikes me is that in addition to allowing my little monster to make his/her own choices, I’d need to arm him/her against the barrage of peer-based pressure to conform to outdated bigotry-centered norms. Let’s face it, once your kid leaves home s/he’s going to have a shit-ton of inputs and weighted feedback on what he’s learned at home. We’ve all gone through it and at times growing up it felt like the voices from the outside carried more weight than what mom and dad so carefully imparted. Without the ability to say, “hey, your dad’s a douchenozzle bigot that derives his ideas from the McCarthy era. I can play with Barbies and still kick your ass in COD. Mind your own damned business, ya twit.”, I fear the younglings will be vulnerable to unwanted shaping from the outside especially in reaction to “non-standard” toy choices (or any other choices for that matter). Some kids are super strong willed and will not bend just by nature but every teen understands peer pressure and every adult remembers things they’ve done against there better judgement because of that peer pressure.

    At the end of it, I’d like my kid to be able to say: “I am a leaf on the wind; watch how I soar, motherfucker.”

  3. #3 by SimplyMonk on May 22, 2013 - 4:10 PM

    I just hope my daughter doesn’t grow up to be a serial killer… but then again, being the father of one of the few female serial killers would be something of note.

  4. #4 by Jim on May 22, 2013 - 4:25 PM

    Generally, I like this approach and support it with an additional consideration. Just as most adults will admit that many teenagers aren’t equipped to make all the best decisions in life, two year olds (and up!) aren’t either. One of the better things a parent can do for a child is encourage them to experience many different things; so that at the appropriate stage of maturity, they can make up their own minds about them from a basis of familiarity. We easily see this with foods, but more rarely see it in other choices in life like toys, sports, and even school subjects. Some interests in life are learned and practiced and may not be easy to enjoy without some of both. If we merely react to the current interests of a child, they may never experience the joy of many things that take some effort and time to be able to enjoy. Gender specificity in toys or activities is artificially limiting and serves no useful purpose. Encouraging our children to experience various things (within reasonable legal and moral limits) can be very beneficial in helping them determine the paths through life that work the best for them. Leaving it up to them without parental guidance, is silly. You aren’t able to turn off society’s influence, so why would you want to turn your own off to at least give society’s some counter balance or context? It is neat to see that Joshua is able to enjoy many different toys and play activities and not feel like what he is choosing is out of bounds (except for fire and knives!). Keep up the great parenting. One might also wonder if this approach to parenting by the two of you might stem from the male being an Arts graduate and the female being a Science graduate. You have both seen the “other” sides and are successful in them.

    • #5 by mscarpel on May 23, 2013 - 8:14 AM

      Oh certainly. The post may have overstated or flattened my viewpoint out a bit — I’m always going to be around to provide some context to Joshua and try to get him to branch out his interests and tastes and, I’m sure, steer him towards things that I think are worthwhile. I just want to try and be keeping in mind his interests and well-being over any agendas I may be sporting on my own.

  5. #6 by Júlíus Árnason on May 23, 2013 - 11:48 AM

    I’ve been having the same external/internal debate.

    Emil just got a new bicycle. He looked through the entire catalogue and wanted the “girlie” bike (which is girlie by virtue of it being colored red and decorated with flowers – it also has one of those basket-things on the steering wheel), no ifs or buts about it. As far as Lydía and I were concerned that was fine, yet we felt a need to explain to Emil… something about the bike, so that at least he would be able to respond if some kid came up to him and teased him for riding a girlie bike. In the end we decided to tell him that it was just Emil’s bike, nothing more, nothing less. And it has worked perfectly. Or at least he hasn’t told us about any problems.

    As far as the violent “boy” culture is concerned, well it’s hard to justify it isn’t it? Especially when aspects of what we like our kids to enjoy (Star Wars, comics etc.) so often use violence as the main motive and resolve for conflict. Ant to be honest I don’t have an answer for that.

    • #7 by mscarpel on May 23, 2013 - 11:53 AM

      Yeah I totally agree. I’m in the middle of wanting Joshua not to get all into guns and shooting but I’m also jazzed to watch Die Hard with him in like 10 years and Star Wars sooner than that.

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