Little play soldiers, if only you knew
what kind of battles are waiting for you.
~ Martin Cooper
When our oldest daughter was little, we – like many enlightened parents in the 70s – were determined to give her a Barbie-free upbringing. It was part of a developing movement based on raising children without gender roles or stereotypes.1 We were pretty successful until the day, when she was four or five, she came home from her baby-sitter’s with a cardboard box full of Barbies. We gave in and gave up. She played happily with Barbie for the next few years and then passed the Box-o-Barbies on to her little sister. The box now sits in our attic, where it will no doubt one day be “discovered” by her daughter, little Violet, born just five days ago.
Violet has a three year old brother, Sam. His parents (and grandparents) are raising him without toy weapons, and he has a completely non-violent toy box. The other day he was working on a cardboard puzzle – some kind of bright, happy Big Bird scene. He picked up one of the large puzzle pieces, gripped it in his little fingers, and announced, “Hey, this could be a gun!” Yesterday, his weapon of choice was a (closed) soap-bubble bottle. He brandished it like a ray gun and “blasted” us with imaginary bubbles.
Personality development and gender roles are subjects of much study, and my opinions are not professional, but based on observation and the experience of a being a kid, a parent, and a grandparent. Allowing for important exceptions, the emergence of gender-related interests and traits in boys and girls (like a three-year-old boy’s determination to turn almost anything into a gun) seems almost genetic, and no doubt some of it is. But certainly a great deal of it has to do with those things that we (parents and society) introduce our children to – both consciously and sub-consciously: the colors we dress them in, the way we talk to them, the books we read to them, the toys we buy, the images they see. My guess is that many of the most important teaching events are so subtle that we don’t notice them and we don’t realize we are doing them.
And, of course, genetic or cultural, there’s nothing predictive or automatic about it. My loving parents gave me a Roy Rogers (or Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy) gun belt every Christmas from about age five through age ten. Few days went by during those years that I didn’t have a six-gun in a holster slung at my hip. Like my grandson, I discovered an interest in making the bad guys “go dead.” (I laughed at my girl cousin because she didn't know how to make a proper gunshot sound.) Today, although I don’t have the courage to be a pacifist, I am not interested in guns.
(Similarly, although I am not a hunter, I have fond memories of pheasant hunting with my dad, and I think that the male camaraderie of the hunt was an elemental part of my development – especially since my dad’s hunting buddies were the same guys I saw in church with their kids – my friends. Another subject for another time.)
Yet, to use an over-used metaphor, there is an elephant in the room. It is this: the developmental interest in guns among boys (whatever its cause) combined with research that demonstrates that our brains aren’t capable of critical thinking and decision-making until age twenty-five means that our society raises (quite deliberately, I think) young men who are only too happy to join up to make the bad guys “go dead.” Until they reach twenty-five, that is. Then they wise up and want to stay home and raise their own boys and girls. (And twenty-five is about the time that heretofore immortal young men realize, "Hey, I could go dead, too!") This is why recruiting or allowing volunteers under the age of twenty-five for war-fighting is morally criminal. Military operations should be limited to men and women over twenty-five. Then let us see how many Iraqs and Afghanistans there will be.
1. I do not mock this movement. Although there was some trendiness about it, it was (and is) part of the ongoing liberation of men and women from harmful, limiting stereotypes. That said, I recall an essay I read back then, written by one of these enlightened parents. She recalled a conversation at the playground between two moms raising gender-neutral kids. Each had a boy and a girl. "And yet," said one, "there is a difference isn't there."