boy toys
7 January 2000
Item: one white plastic box with five colored cubes. It’s called Music Blocks but does it play music? Not unless you call a single note -- repeated endlessly until you pull out the music cartridge -- unless you call that music. Jarring atonal experimental jazz? Seems a tad advanced for a twenty month old.

Item: one Baby Songs videotape. Says 30 minutes right on the label, doesn’t it? Then why does it end abruptly after 11 minutes 7 seconds? Just as a big floppy eared shaggy dog (actor? You think?) starts singing about being a little girl’s dog. Editorial comment by my VCR?

Item: One multicolored tape deck. Big buttons for small awkward fingers. Perfect size and shape for small hands to lift and tote. Songs to distract small brains from the dread diaper change. Um, except for when it suddenly decides to stop playing mid-song. You have to coax it, turn it off and on again, persuade it to do its job. Think it’s holding out for a pay raise? Better tapes?

Yes, this was Damian’s first Christmas with real toys, toys that require batteries and contain intricate electronics or delicate tape. Toys that break after one use.

You’d think the manufacturers would say "gee, we’re building a toy for a two year old, maybe we should, oh, I don’t know, make it sturdy?"

Sadly, no. The manufacturers apparently say, "let’s make ‘em colorful, loud, fun, who cares about longevity? We’ll have a new Tickle Me Pikachu out next month anyway."

Welcome to our consumer culture, Damian. Use it once, toss it away, who cares about keepsakes or the environment?

But still... those damned toys are awfully clever. Take the Music Blocks. Each block has shapes etched on its sides -- a star, a circle, a square, etc. -- and each side plays a different instrument. Plus, each colored block plays a distinct part of the melody, so you can arrange the sequence however you like. Damian swaps the blocks with abandon and presses the button to hear the sequence again, listening with great concentration like the miniature scientist he is. He was so happy today when we opened the box to reveal the broken toy’s replacement. (Etoys sent it immediately, along with a $10 gift certificate. Classy operation.) He’s sitting on the floor right now, testing block combinations. He insists the circles should always face up. I don’t know if it’s a visual or aural aesthetic choice, but a choice it most emphatically is.

Damian has a definite preference for musical toys. He likes the xylophone we bought him for Christmas, he’s less interested in the drum, preferring to test out drum sounds on the lamp (brassy clang), couch (muffled thump), table (dare I say woody?), and window (loud and way too dangerous clatter).

I guess that's just a kid being a kid. He fits the profile (being a kid and all). He love balls like most of his age mates. Of course, Damian’s definition of ball may be a tad more inclusive than most -- blocks or cars or paper-wrapped Ricola cough drops all count as balls. Basically, he loves throwing, especially when we say "clonk!" as the ball/block/car/Ricola lands.

But kids his age supposedly love stuffed animals. I know I did, and my brother too. Damian -- not so much. Oh, I sometimes find him after his nap with his huge stuffed fish in his lap and a big grin on his face, or occasionally he’s nose-to-nose with a small stuffed dog, telling me it’s really a cat. But in general, given a stuffed Tasmanian devil or a little red Corvette, he’ll go for the Corvette every time.

Cars. Which, of course, is a most-kids-his-age focus too, but only the boys. So strange, this gender-linked car obsession. I don’t understand it. It doesn’t fit. Men and women are mostly wired the same, with a few exceptions like women’s verbal acuity and men’s spacial sense. Where does this car thing come from? What possible biological imperative says "male person must love vehicles to survive in forest"?

I was raised in a gender neutral home. Nobody thrust Barbies on me or gave me a Happy Homemaker Kitchen set. Good thing, too. I wasn’t a dolls-and-mommy’s makeup sort of girl, just as my brother wasn’t a cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-up sort of boy. But my father talks about how they tried to do a gender reversal and give me matchbox cars and trucks. Which I snubbed in favor of my beloved mangled stuffed elephant Elizabeth. My brother, naturally, turned his nose up at dolls and went straight for my discarded trucks.

And my mom likes to tell about this one toy: a series of poles with stacking rings, set on a wheeled platform complete with pull-string. I sat for hours stacking and unstacking the rings. My brother, in his turn, took one look at it and grabbed the string.

I’ve heard those stories for years, but I figured, well, they must have been giving us subconscious signals, right? I mean, kids aren’t that pre-programmed, are they?

Damian had no gender-specific toys until he was a year old and someone gave him a board book for his birthday. Construction Zone. Such a small book. Such a powerful punch. Photographs of bulldozers and rubber tired backhoes mesmerized my little one year old and he was never the same again.

From there it was a baby step to other books about cars and thence to an actual hold-it-in-your-hand toy car. Which he carries around the house; pushes under couch and chair; zooms back and forth on the floor, revving the motor (tightening the little spring) and then letting go, watching with glee as it takes off across the floor.

These cars, they’re like bunnies: they multiply faster than the speed of sound and before you say boo! one turns into ten, into twenty. Blue Duplo car meets yellow metal SUV, makes baby purple fuzzy car. We’re overrun with cars and trucks and trains.

I know, it’s not a big deal, not really. I want him to have fun. He loves his cars and trucks and most emphatically is having fun. But I wonder what it means. Is it just that he’s growing up in a car culture, he watches Daddy go off to work in an old beat up Toyota (Which Damian christened "Dada car") and settles into the back of an old beat up Honda to head off to the library and playground and playgroup? After all, how many Tasmanian devils does he meet in real life? Maybe he just prefers what he knows.

Nah. He sees people, after all, so shouldn’t dolls entice? But they don’t. Okay, I can kind of accept that this is a little girl thing (although not me); after all, women carry the baby and nurse the baby and should form some sort of attachment to babies in general (although I didn’t) if only to prepare for the biologically desired continuation of the species.

But cars? How’s that fit? I still can’t figure that out. I also wonder what else is in store as we get older, how many gender stereotypes are ingrained and how many are about exposure. Will Damian love sports even though none of his male relatives do? Will he run around and pretend a carrot is really a sword? And does it mean anything if he does? I have no idea. Really, none at all. This part of being a mother to a son is all brand new to me. But I do know whatever he likes and doesn’t like, he’ll approach with a variant that’s all about who he is as a person. Which makes me comfortable with whatever’s waiting in the wings. Because I like this little male person who lives in my house.

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