Boys with sticks

Strawberries with cream, peanut butter with jam, boys with sticks; some things just seem to complement each other naturally in life.

I come from a long line of women. I grew up with a mother and two older sisters. I only had one living grandmother. I have a dad, but even he was a woman by default. He would buy our household cartons of tampons and pads and suffer through “the full moon” right along with us. My mom had him trained to sit when he peed (something I have passed along to my own husband – I highly recommend it!), and he took care of most of the household cleaning and cooking.

My own daughters are girls through and through; as are my nieces. My out-of-country sister adopted two boys but, being out of country, their boyish ways have had little influence on me. So when my son arrived into my world, I was ill prepared. It’s a boy?

Oh, boy!

The boy-child
The boy-child

Three years later, I still marvel at what is between his legs. Every time I change his diaper, I honestly can’t believe what I’m seeing. The miniature, hairless “weenis” as my daughter coined it, so precious and, well, un-female….

But I digress.

It’s not just the “weenis” that makes life with a boy-child different. I used to sit in the city parks and be slightly shocked at the goings-on of the boys there. My girls would be playing, gently and carefully, giggling and skipping along. The boys, however, appeared to be at war with one another, or with a tree, or themselves, writhing and hollering, and generally nuts.

I would look at them, and then back at my girls, and give quiet thanks to my “stellar” parenting skills. Little did I know.

“Boys will be boys,” so they say. “They” are presumably mothers or caregivers of boys. That phrase in and of itself almost sounds like an apology, doesn’t it? Instead of saying “Yes, I know, he’s insane and I don’t understand why,” they say “boys will be boys” and everyone nods in solemn agreement.

For my family, dealing with a boy was in part experimental. Suddenly all of the female gender-specific paraphernalia became a thing of the past and we marvel still at what constitutes boy toys. A trip down the “boy” aisle at Toys “R” Us is both horrifying and exciting.

We quickly fell into the gender trap and began buying stuff like Star Wars figurines, books about trucks and tractors, and even picked up a beautiful vintage set of Buffalo Bill toy guns and holsters at a flea market. And who could resist the super hero pyjamas and bulldozer underpants?

Cal with his Buffalo Bill gun and favourite stick.
Cal with his Buffalo Bill gun and favourite stick.

So the argument became the age old “nature versus nurture.” When our son began behaving like an asshole, we were quick to use the above mentioned “apology.” But really, hadn’t we done this to him ourselves? I asked this very question to the parents of a local family I met recently. I honestly expected them to agree that we had, and to scold me for falling into the gender trap. However, they just seemed perplexed that it was even a concern. In the city, little boys can run around in pink skirts if they want to. In the country, I suspect it would be frowned upon.

The turning point for me was when, at a local drop in center, after kicking down a young child’s precariously-balanced stack of blocks, my son made a bee-line for the Barbie hair dryer and proceeded to “shoot” all the mothers in the room with it. It was not a great parenting moment for me. I hustled him out the door and that night, my husband and I decided to ban all toys and movies that conveyed violent behaviour.

I even bagged Buzz Lightyear.

Cal was sad. But, when he realized his favourite sticks (i.e. weapons) were also gone, he was enraged.

At the country school where I have been teaching, their philosophy on child play is either very antiquated, or extremely forward-thinking, depending on your opinion of what constitutes a safe play zone. There, they encourage children to run with sticks and climb trees. They have wooden-seated swings (or tooth extractors as I like to call them) and a metal slide that reminds me of the ones we had growing up. They have access to sharp tools; they throw snowballs, fall down, get hurt, and carry on. It’s quite intriguing to watch, actually.

I was discussing this different philosophy with one of the teachers during break when the door to the classroom flew open and one of my students came in, dragging a large tree limb behind him. We continued talking about the differences between what is generally accepted as “safe play” as the student hoisted the limb up onto a table and began rummaging through the cupboards until he found – wait for it – a hand saw.

I finally interrupted my conversation and, gesturing towards the table said, “Like this for instance. In a public school system, you would never see this!”

We both watched, mesmerized, as he furiously sawed away.

The Current on CBC Radio had an interesting show recently on this very subject. Studies have been conducted over the years about “safe” play grounds vs. “un-safe,” and the results have been surprising. There were far fewer injuries in the “un-safe” zones. There was a decrease in bullying and vandalism, and children learned important life skills in the process.

Swordplay, it seems, not only helps children explore the boundaries of relationships (good vs. evil), but also encourages imagination. And as Harry Harbottle says in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Q (“Are playgrounds too safe?”), children are no longer able to learn how to manage risks.

By allowing my son to engage in these “violent” behaviours, to a degree and within reason, we are in fact helping him to be become a better person. One who can actually manage risk independently; a child who understands that actions have consequences and who can channel his aggression in a healthy way.

The violent toys and movies are still in a bag in the basement, but the sticks are back. Leaning against the side of the house, on top of the bookshelf, in the car…the little swords and guns of his imagination; precious in their innocuousness.

And all I can do is hope and pray that he will grow up to be a good man.

My nephews, Luke and Jude, carrying a large stick during their visit here last summer.
My nephews, Luke and Jude, carrying a large stick during their visit here last summer.