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Jewish Journal

Raising Boys

Despite attempts to change them, the nature of male

by Jane Ulman

June 22, 2000 | 8:00 pm

This past year, Toys R Us was excoriated for proposing and, in some instances, constructing separate "Boys World" and "Girls World" sections. But public outrage quickly forced the 707-store retailer to abandon this gender-based marketing concept, which it euphemistically referred to as "logical adjacencies."Twenty years ago, I would have vehemently condemned Toys R Us' discriminatory actions, perhaps even joining the ranks of the politically correct protesters. Girls, I would have argued, have as much right to play with a Tonka truck as boys with a Little Tikes vacuum cleaner. And not only a right, a need.Twenty years ago, I was single, childless and clueless.

But I had come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, witnessing the birth of the pill, Ms. Magazine and Helen Reddy's hit song, "I am Woman," watching a total upheaval of traditional sexual roles, rules and expectations.

By the early 1980s, I had seen Sally J. Priesand ordained as the first female American rabbi, Sandra Day O'Connor appointed as the first female United States Supreme Court justice and Sally Ride launched into space as the first American female astronaut. And I firmly believed the slogan - before I met my husband, Larry, of course - that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

The truth is that the feminist movement, especially during the last 30 years, has brought women unprecedented and very necessary civil rights. It has increased our pay, our sense of confidence and our reproductive options. Clearly, in the words of Bob Dylan, "the times they are a-changin'."

Changing so much that by late 1983, married and pregnant, I envisioned raising my first son in an idyllic, egalitarian environment. I would teach him to be vulnerable and sensitive, to share his toys graciously with his playmates and to assist me joyfully and willingly with household chores. My future daughter-in-law, whoever she might be, would sing the praises of my parenting skills.

Then Zack was actually born - and I watched the powers of the Y chromosome unfold before me. I watched him hide his favorite toys before a friend would come over. And even more horrific, in our then-adamantly pacifistic, weapon-free home, I watched him fashion guns out of Legos or pieces of toast. Or shoot with a pointed forefinger and raised thumb.

In 1987, Gabe was born. As a toddler, he transformed his cute, cuddly Care Bears into deadly weapons to hurl against his older brother. Later, he used his artistic skills to draw guns and forts and armed castles. Then, in 1989, with the birth of Jeremy, I learned the true meaning of the word risk-taker. Barely walking, he regularly climbed atop the kitchen table and marched across it. Worse, before he learned to swim, he jumped fearlessly into the deep end of swimming pools. He also wrapped Levolor cords around his neck and headed for electrical outlets with letter openers.

By the time my fourth son, Danny, arrived in 1991, my feminist outlook had flip-flopped. I had accepted the reality of innate, intrinsic and God-given gender differences, differences not easily altered by well-meaning and enlightened parents and parenting manuals, differences fundamentally immune to social and cultural influences.

The Talmud agrees. "It is the way of man to subdue the earth, but it is not the way of a woman to subdue it."

My friend Doug Williams also agrees. Recently comparing our respective hormonally charged home environments, Doug, the father of three daughters, said, "At our house, we have talking, talking, talking. Everything has to be processed.""Come to our house," I offered. "We have punching."

"Boys are just hard-wired a certain way," my husband, Larry, says. And studies confirm this. Males have 10 to 20 times higher testosterone levels than females as well as lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces confrontational and impulsive tendencies.

Overall, men are more competitive, aggressive, physical and prone to taking risks.That's why, with four boys, we have plastic surgeons on call.And that's why females, who have been trying for the past several decades to remake males in our image, to make them more communal, cooperative and compassionate, have been unsuccessful. Indeed, no matter how much we ask our husbands and sons to talk about their feelings, how often we ask them to process and not necessarily solve problems or how many pink polo shirts we buy them, biology trumps behavioral influences, nature trumps nurture.

This doesn't mean that I don't passionately and unequivocally believe in equal civil, social and religious rights for males and females.

It doesn't mean that I condone rude, offensive, outlandish or inappropriate behavior. Or that I ever accept the excuse that "boys will be boys."

But it does mean that no matter how generically, unideologically or "illogically adjacent" Toys R Us arranges its thousands of toys, my sons, every time, will make a beeline to the weapon aisle.

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