Thursday, February 25, 2010

Boys and Girls

Rae and Dana are having a "Celebrate the Boy" month, to spotlight crafty endeavors that focus on making things for boys.  I think it's a good idea, because they are right, boys often get overlooked when it comes time for a craft-o-rama.  Mostly, I think, because it's easier to sew up a tube of fabric and slap in some elastic for a skirt than it is to make a well-fitting nicely finished pair of pants or a button-up shirt (I get queasy just thinking about collars).

They've showcased some really cute and creative ideas, and I have to say I am mostly relieved.  While I have some misgivings about designating certain colors, fabrics, or motifs as "BOY" or "GIRL," the projects they've shown off (their own work and that of others) go far beyond the "It's blue! It has sports on it! It must be for boys!" mentality that seems to permeate children's clothing (and toys).

I have seen a couple of "oh, I'm so tired of pink and ruffles, thanks for doing a BOY feature!"-type comments in articles and around the web, at which I sigh and roll my eyes. I want to shake those people and say "You know girls aren't limited to pink and ruffles, right?  And you do realize that 'boy' doesn't just mean the opposite of those things either?" It's such a simple concept, but so many people just don't seem to get it.  And worse, they (sometimes very consciously) push their kids into these pre-determined roles of 'girl' and 'boy.'  It makes me sad to watch a parent snatch a doll from their sons arm's and say "No, dolls are for GIRLS. You can't play with that." As though learning to be empathetic and care for others is a bad thing.  Conversely, these same sort of people will automatically hand truckloads of dolls to their girls, bury them in pink play kitchens and call them 'little Mommy.'  As though taking care of others is all they should learn.

A friend came over with his four-year-old son recently, and the boy asked where Piper was.  I told him she was taking her nap at the moment, but I'd be happy to play with him until she woke up.  My husband and the friend immediately started talking (and then playing) video-game stuff, so I took the son into the playroom and we played.  He made a beeline for the box of crocheted play food Piper's grandma made for her, and got out the toy dishes.  We cooked up some apple-hot dog-sushi pancake sandwiches and some egg & sardine soup.  We baked some pizza-taco-corn on the cob casserole. Then he spied Piper's little toy shopping cart and said "We need to go to the store! You be the mommy and I'll be the daddy. We gotta go to the grocery store." So he pushed the cart, with one of Piper's dolls in the front seat, and we did a lap around the house together.  As soon as we got into the living room, our friend said "I bring my son over here, and you make him do girl stuff." He was only half-joking.  Maybe not even half.  It clearly made him uncomfortable that his son was pretending to grocery-shop. The boy wanted to join the video game they were playing, but his dad told him he could have a turn when they were done, so we continued to play.  We cooked some more and he served lunch to the doll ("The baby is hungry, she wants some apples," he explained to me). The dad poked his head in every few minutes, still looking uncomfortable. Eventually the play food gave way to things like the wooden ball run and, finally a game of "these two stuffed dinosaurs will chase each other and try to bite each other's heads off."  As we ran around the house, stuffed dinosaurs in hand, growling and roaring (quietly, since Piper was still asleep), the dad looked relieved.

"Don't worry," I said to him as we dashed through. "We're not doing 'girly' things anymore, we're playing fighting dinosaurs. His is winning right now because it bit the head off the other dinosaur and then ate a dog."
"Now THAT sounds like my son," he answered. 

They continued to play video games, Piper continued to sleep, and we continued to play.  I got the definite impression that this kid did not get a lot of one-on-one play time without a TV screen involved.  He'd go and check on the game the dads were playing every once in a while (Wii bowling), and sometimes take a turn, but he always came back and picked up our game again.  If the TV had been off, I don't think he would've given it a second thought.

Eventually he cycled back around to the doll in the shopping cart, and wheeled it out to Piper's small table, next to our dining-room table.  "Let's have lunch," he announced, and had me put the doll at the table.  He brought out a stack of play dishes and pretended to make lunch.  "The baby wants some food," he proclaimed. "She wants to sit right there and have something to eat."

His dad glanced over and made another crack about "doing girl stuff." He then started to hang around the little table, hovering closely over his son and saying over and over that it was time to go, or didn't he want to play the video game again?  The boy said no, he was busy. The dad insisted it was time to go. 

I could not keep my mouth shut. "Oh, are you making her a good healthy lunch, just like your dad makes for you?" I said pointedly.  The dad backed off and went to play his game again.

They left a little while later, shortly after Piper woke up from her nap.  I felt saddened and annoyed by the whole experience.  Ryan tried to defend his friend, saying it's just the culture down here and he doesn't know any better, but I think that justification only made me more annoyed.

"He's a single dad," I answered.  "Yeah, his wife has the kid much of the time, but that's not by his choice.  And he did a lot of heavy lifting even before they were divorced.  He loves his son, and he tries to be a good dad.  Why get upset when his son tries to be a good dad too?  Why do people find that so disturbing?"

Truth be told, this was best interaction I've ever had with this kid. Normally we groan when we have to spend any amount of time with him, because he's always snatching toys out of Piper's hands or stuffing his face full of something he doesn't want to share or shoving over store displays or pitching a fit because he wants to play video games or taking food off other kids' plates or demanding to leave somewhere after five minutes because he's bored or whining enough to make your head explode. This time it was really fun to play with him, and think I got a glimpse of how things could be if he got a little more interaction and a lot less screen time.

And I was really, really annoyed that his dad saw what we did as "girly stuff."  You need to eat.  Your kid needs to eat.  Sometimes you are going to have to obtain and cook food for your child.  That's not "girly," that's basic survival, for Pete's sake! And you'd think more people would encourage their sons to take up an interest in food and cooking, since it can make you a lot of money if you do it well.


Antoinette said...

I think your friend's attitude toward his son's play is pretty limiting but I think that happens a lot. I sort of live on the opposite extreme, where there are lots of things that kids get curious about, and I don't mind indulging in that curiosity. My son commented yesterday that he doesn't have girl toys (dolls) and he doesn't have boy toys (Transformers) -- he just has toys. I was OK with that observation and I think he is, too.

Rae said...

Ack. It's so discouraging to read that people our age are still saying that sort of stuff in front of their kids. It sends the message "It's NOT OK to play with that toy" at an age when they should be just playing with whatever strikes their fancy. I find Elliot is naturally gravitating toward boyish stuff (he loves basketball and baseball more than anything else) as he grows up, but it won't be for lack of a dollhouse or a play kitchen (which he also likes to play with) and it CERTAINLY won't be because I made demeaning comments towards any behavior that falls slightly towards nurturing. I want him to be a good daddy some day!!!

Also, glad to hear that Boy Month didn't disappoint! I tried pretty hard to make sure that almost everything we did could be adapted or used as is for a girl. Like the forts? AWESOME!