Raising good men

November 19, 1997|By Mona Charen

WANT A QUICK way to discover whether the people you're chatting with at a party are liberals or conservatives? Ask what kind of toys they permit their kids to play with.

All over America, there are intelligent, well-meaning parents who sincerely believe that most personality differences between boys and girls are culturally determined. These brave souls go into parenthood serene in the knowledge that if you hand a boy a doll and a girl a truck, the children will gurgle with pleasure and proceed to play happily.

Nature will out

That is, until they have their first child. Tara Sonenshine, once a senior producer for ABC's ''Nightline'' and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, was so conscientious about not giving her sons stereotypical boy toys that when her 3-year-old finally laid eyes on his first gun at a birthday party, he thought it was a hair dryer. Ah, but nature will out. When Ms. Sonenshine gave him a Barbie doll, he plowed the carpet with it, transforming the poor thing into a truck.

Even I, who entered upon parenthood with no illusions about male/female distinctions, have been startled at just how glaring the differences are. My 20-month-old son knows the word ''backhoe.'' I didn't know what a backhoe was until I was 36 (and then only because I was the mother of a boy).

When my first-born, Jonathan, was 2, I watched his pre-school class at recess on the playground. The boys came roaring out the door and proceeded to fly wildly around the equipment, stooping to grab wood chips and throw them on one another's heads, squealing, losing shoes and fighting. There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the Olympic pentathlon and decathlon champion Jim Thorpe once tried to copy every activity of a 2-year-old boy for 24 hours. Thorpe couldn't compete.

The 2-year-old girls in Jonathan's class, by contrast, would proceed to a spot under the sliding board where they would sit in a circle and, well, one hates to say, gossip . . .

Girls seem to enter the world in a more civilized state than boys. Parents of girls spend less time extricating their children from puddles, asking them to lower their voices and sternly advising them to take the carrots out of their noses. But just because boys come into the world a little more raw and a lot more wild does not make them inferior to girls. Properly instructed, they learn to channel their energy in productive ways and to cultivate the virtues that we unabashedly used to call ''manly'': courage, honor, responsibility, strength.

About boys

Christina Hoff Sommers, author of ''Who Stole Feminism?'' is at work on a book about the way our society shortchanges boys. She notes that toy manufacturers are constantly on the prowl for toys that will have crossover appeal -- but can't find them. Ask those liberal parents who never permitted their sons to play with guns what happened. Nine out of 10 will report that their sons found something gun-shaped in nature and pointed it, shouting, ''bang bang.''

The great push in the schools these days is to ''empower'' girls, to let their ''voices be heard'' and to enhance their self-esteem. Often, that means stifling the confidence, the verve and the boyishness of boys.

Female crisis

As Ms. Sommers and others have pointed out, the crisis of female ''self-esteem'' was a mirage from the beginning. Girls actually do better in school than boys on a variety of measures. Boys, for example, are much more likely than girls to drop out of high school. Eighth-grade boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to be held back a grade.

But boys outnumber girls at the very top of the IQ scale. There are more boy than girl geniuses. And unruly, unkempt, unmanageable boys have also grown up to become the greatest poets, scientists and musicians in history. Disappointed liberal parents watching their sons play with guns should remember that.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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