Boys and girls are different after all

By Jane Flanagan

One day my sister-in-law and I were walking up and down the isles of Toys “R” Us. Diane is in her mid-fifties and first became a parent in the 1970s. It had been some time since she examined the items on a toy store’s shelves and she was aghast. While I was spotting ideas for future birthday party presents, she, apparently, was contemplating social/political upheaval.

Blatant, color-coded gender segregation was everywhere, she said. Even bicycles came in Barbie pink or military fatigue.

Diane tells me that back in her day you never would have seen this. The goal was to neutralize the genders. Moms encouraged girls to wear bluejeans and play with trucks. Boys were never given toy guns and attempts were made to tantalize them with the appealing side of Ken. Certainly you did not walk into a toy store and find an entire isle of pink.

As for me, the mother of a 4 1/2-year-old boy, I can’t imagine what was going on back then. Not that the idea doesn’t appeal to me. I have three brothers and have been surrounded by maleness all my life. I’d love to infuse some more femininity around my apartment. But after four years, I realize there is no way I am going to neutralize my young, resident member of the male gender.

My son Rusty’s first word was “car.” No conditioning factor there, either. He was sitting in the backseat of a Subaru, looked out the window and that was all the inspiration he needed.

It’s not that I didn’t make an attempt to gender equalize. I picked out books for him. Many’s a night I’d say, “Do you want to read ‘Madeline?’”


And the older he gets, the less and less likely it seems that he will ever be interested in girl stuff.

Since his “first-word” utterance he’s continued to build his guy vocabulary. His technical knowledge has, needless to say, long surpassed mine. The other day my husband and Rusty were discussing firehouses. I asked what the difference was between engine and ladder companies. Rusty filled me in. (I can’t remember the answer.) Before Rusty, I didn’t even know there were two types of fire companies. I think it’s just two.

I have, however, discovered how to move things along more smoothly by appealing to his masculine ways. Take the trip to school. Yesterday, Rusty cried and complained most of the way there. He was bored and grumpy. Except, when he was on the subway. Then he was mesmerized staring out the window at the dirty tunnel.

On this morning’s trip, we remembered to bring his toy airplane. He was a delight the entire way there. He ran ahead flying his plane. My only job was to be the voice of the control tower. “Captain, get ready to taxi, please, sir.” He informed me he expected some “turbulence” but not to worry, the “sonar” would spot it ahead of time.

Things like this are always going through his brain, things that never would mine. While riding in the car, one of his favorite pastimes, he often likes to muse.

“This car has a tachometer and a speedometer you know,” he said one day.

“Some cars don’t.” One day we got in a cab and he sat on my lap so he could see the control panel. Noticing this, the driver asked him if he wanted to be a taxi driver when he grew up.

“No, I’m going to drive a bus,” he said.

The two of us have spent endless time playing Battery Park City Shuttle bus. I’m the Mom who’s delighted that her grown-up son, Rusty, is behind the wheel. If another driver tries to pick me up, I refuse. He, in turn, does special favors for me, such as stopping near the Staten Island Ferry terminal, not normally on the route.

Friends of mine with girls report similar phenomena from the other side. One night at the playground a friend of mine, a father of a 4-year-old girl, was exasperated. He said that by next year his daughter probably wouldn’t be interested in climbing playground equipment anymore. I glanced in her direction. She and two girlfriends were trying on plastic jewelry and scarves.

I applaud the efforts of the ’70s generation, but I see why they never took hold. I did, however, have a hopeful moment sometime back when I first brought home the “Madeline” books. To my surprise, my son was very interested in reading “Madeline in London.” “Oh, you like ‘Madeline?’” I said.

He turned to the picture on the inside cover. Madeline and the other girls were tiny passengers, each in her own window seat, flying off to Britain.

“I like the plane,” he said.


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