Sometime in the late ‘seventies, experts wanted girls to play with trucks, and boys to be given access to the kindergarten corner reserved for pots and pans. The wisdom of the day was that offering boisterous boys dolls would socialise and calm them. It was also thought that the genders would learn to understand each other at an age when they were the most easily influenced and it would help do away with stereotypes.
It wasn’t such a bad idea as far as it went. But while the experiment of the genders moving beyond the stereotypical boundaries has been relatively successful, turning ‘slugs and snails and puppy dog tails’ into ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’ and vice versa is a harder ask and not necessarily desirable. Each gender has its own attributes and failings and as parents it’s our job to appreciate the former and work on the latter.
Girls tend to be less distracted than boys are. They hear you when you speak. They listen, which is why they express themselves better than boys do. My granddaughters draw, paste, paint and sit patiently for large chunks of time rearranging figurines and dolls house furniture. Their dolls have names and a back history; my girls have opinions on how the rooms should be arranged. They love the playground park and will see saw and swing with the best of them, but they will happily get back to something sedate once they get back home.
Lucinda Neall, author of About our Boys: A practical guide to bringing out the best in boys, believes that it is ‘essential that boys be allowed to be physical and do activities that use up their energy…even those boys who don’t like sport or aren’t very active usually have active minds that are drawn to action and adventure in their imaginary play’ or in what they read or what movies they watch or video games they play. Boys run when they can walk, they shout when they can talk and they flip back their Superman capes and chase after real or imaginary objects. Stick a doll in a little boy’s hand and he will most likely turn it into an aeroplane and run around the house making zoom, zoom noises. Then he will pull the doll apart to see what it is made of. No amount of role reversal is going to change that for long. You can sit boys down for craft activities and they will even enjoy it in small doses, but after a very short while, just like a steaming kettle, if you plug the opening they will either find another outlet or burst in the attempt.
I had no luck distracting my boys from kicking a ball around the back yard or getting them off the monkey bars long enough to consider role playing with Barbie or one of her sisters. There was a tree in our back yard that was taller again by half than our house. One fine day, when things were quieter than I was used to, I looked out the kitchen window and caught sight of five year old D two thirds of the way up that tree. His younger brother stood nearby, looking on in admiration. My hair stood on end, as it generally does when terror and adrenalin kick in. The conversation went something like this.
‘Hurry down D.
No, no, take your time. But be quick
Be careful! Hurry up, won’t you? Be careful, darling.
There you go, nearly there. It’s all right. It’s all right.
You naughty boy! You naughty boy! What on earth got into you?’
The answer was a tearful shrug. Had he been more articulate, D might, like George Mallory the English mountaineer, have responded with ‘because it is there’. Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on their way up Mt Everest in 1924; Mallory’s body wasn’t found for 75 years. And that’s it in a nutshell. Some men and most boys just can’t help themselves. When they are attracted to danger and adventure, personal cost becomes irrelevant. Girls are cautious and too imaginative about the consequences to themselves, to risk doing something like that.
But if nature can’t be tamed, we can at least tweak it a bit. Thankfully it is not all pre-determined. Boys will be boys, as the saying goes, except if it’s relating to something that isn’t good for their health. In that case feel free to stick your oar in. In their late teens, my sons accused me of raising them to believe that it’s better to talk yourself out of a fight than to use your fists. Apparently they had lacked the belligerence required of the post-pubescent male to survive in the school environment; I had put them at a distinct disadvantage, they said, all the way through high school. Now they’ve come full circle and are grateful. And they no longer have a problem expressing themselves. Sooner or later most boys will grow out of leaping before they look, and hopefully some girls will have the self-confidence to take a bit of a chance occasionally and leap. It’s all a matter of balance and of giving things a helping hand.
Girls are easier to raise because their primary carers are usually women and have some personal insight into the various phases that they go through; women identify a lot more closely with girls than with their male progeny. Unless there are experiences of brothers or male cousins to draw on, we see boys as strange entities to be dealt like ticking time bombs; gingerly and at a distance. They pick their nose and scrape their knees and neither they nor their hair is capable of staying down for too long.
My idea, of a good time, once upon a time, was to lie stomach down on the carpeted lounge room floor and work my way through all the fairy stories there were, the Grimm(er) the better. My boys wouldn’t leave me alone, for five minutes at a time; ‘hey mum, look at me, I’m doing a handstand’ or ‘mum can we keep this lizard/stray dog/bird with a broken wing?’ It’s necessary to encourage that wonder and to not crush their spirits when adding nurture to the mix. It’s important to keep their minds engaged and their bodies occupied.
Channel a boy’s energies into constructive activities like trampolining, bike riding and boy scouts and, as Belinda Neall, puts it ‘they won’t be lighting fires or throwing stones or take drugs to satisfy their sense of adventure.’ Encourage boys to climb monkey bars, and even trees if your ticker can take it. Get involved. Play video games together and play board games. My brother banged his chest with his fists, tapped on doors and walls and drummed on our mum’s pots and pans with wooden spoons until our parents bought him his first set of drums. It didn’t do too much for their nervous system, but it kept my energetic brother occupied and all that practicing turned him into a first rate musician.
If you can exhaust your male children physically first, there’s always a chance that you can appeal to their cerebral side later. But there’s no use offering boys The Saddle Club or Ballerina Princess. They need a bit of J K Rowling magic, or Robert Muchamore’s child secret agents to stir their imaginations. Sue Bursztynski, school librarian and author of such nonfiction books as Your cat could be a Spy, and Crime time: Australians behaving badly, says that ‘ordinary boys as opposed to really good readers like information books … about what they enjoy, whether it’s cars or planes or sport or monsters. They love over-the-top information, which is why [borrowing] the Guinness Book of Records [at her library] is so popular. And when they do read fiction, it’s often wacky fiction like Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths. Or sports fiction – Specky McGee is very popular. But mostly, they like it true.’
My boys appreciated the energy consuming exercises of drama theatre. I welcomed their improved powers of concentration, their enhanced imagination and their self discipline. Young M wanted to skateboard. I offered to let him if he earned the money to buy it himself. It was a cunning ruse to buy me some time; if M was serious about earning a skateboard he would also appreciate and take care of it, and hopefully take care of himself. It gave me a chance to educate him in the dangers as well as the pleasures of skateboarding.
D took a child care course before he had children. His mostly female class cheered and whistled when he and fellow male graduates courageously mounted the podium and accepted their diplomas. I don’t think they had got the point yet that they’d ‘come a long way, baby’. M is capable of being his own man without sacrificing his tender (not his feminine) side. I’m still working on my granddaughters, but I hope I’ve succeeded in teaching my children to appreciate and respect it that although we are the one species there are two separate genders and both the genders and their differences deserve acknowledgement and respect.