So the Tiger was invited to a birthday party this weekend, which lots of his first-grade classmates attended. Including the one boy who’s always brimming – nay, boiling over! – with aggressive energy. If this boy (let’s call him Jayden, because all boy names must now end in “N”) successfully reaches adulthood, he may have a great future in professional sports or on the floor of the NYSE. For now, though, he mostly chases his classmates, using whatever blunt object is at hand. This time it was the plastic baseball bat intended for later use with the pinata.
Scene one: I’m sitting with the dad of one of the Tiger’s friends.
He says: You ever notice there are two kinds of boys? The gentle ones and, well, the crazy ones?
Me: Yep. The Tiger is full of mischief, but he’d never run after other kids with a baseball bat.
Him: Yeah, there’s energy, and then there’s brutality.
[We laugh, grateful for our relatively calm boys, perhaps a little too smug, but most just grateful.]
I make a half-hearted attempt to confiscate the bat, but Jayden is too fast for me and we both know it. Eventually the birthday girl’s mama grabs the bat. Through sheer luck, no one has gotten whacked, and no one is in tears.
Scene two: A mom of girls surveys the scene, still driven by Jayden, though the kids are now playing an organized game that involves stomping balloons attached to other kids’ ankles.
She says: Boys are different, aren’t they?
The bat is somehow still in play, and guess who’s swinging it? The rest of the boys are acting … well, pretty much like the girls, squealing and screaming and running.
Scene three: Jayden’s mom studiously avoids getting involved in all the bat-whacking activity. I understand why – really, I do – she needs a respite, I’m sure. All parents walk the line between maintaining our own sanity and giving our kids some direction, and we all have to draw that line a little differently. But also, Jayden’s mom doesn’t seem to think intervening would do much good. She evidently thinks certain behavior just falls under “boys will be boys.”
Now, I’ve been a parent long enough to know that temperament plays a key role in kids’ personalities. You can’t trump that entirely as parents. But I’ve also been a parent long enough to realize that you can guide and develop traits that are likely to help your kids live a good and satisfying life, while discouraging antisocial tendencies. If the Tiger had been wielding that bat (a less likely but still not impossible scenario) I would have confiscated it pronto. I would not have assumed that setting rules was a lost cause, just because he’s an energetic boy.
Anyway, the next time some psychologists want to study how kids – and parents! – learn and do gender, they could do worse than to turn up at a kids’ birthday party. There are hazards of course, including obligatory strawberry cupcakes and the allure of beer on a hot Sunday afternoon (for the parents only, obviously; I resisted temptation). But the interactions around Jayden serve as a perfect laboratory for how all of us learn and reinforce gender.