Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Stren
About five years ago, I asked my sister what my nephew might like as a present for his second birthday. “Anything with wheels on it,” she said with resignation. “He’s obsessed with cars and trucks.” I had seen (and, let’s be honest, pitied) stroller-pushing mothers standing at the edge of construction sites, their young sons excitedly tossing up their dimpled hands at the sight of a bulldozer, summoning the awe of an Egyptologist first beholding the Pyramids of Giza. But I dismissed this boys-like-cars trope as outdated, unfeminist cliché. If boys love trucks, I assumed, it’s a learned behaviour, a general—and worse, a generalizing—social construct and bias. I concluded smugly (and, in retrospect, naively): if boys love trucks, it’s because they are taught or encouraged to love them.
So I rejected my sister’s gift suggestion and bought my nephew a lovely tiny toy mouse from a Danish company—the mouse, petite and refined, came in a box (serving as his tiny bed) and slept on a pillow the size of a cotton ball. My nephew, I later heard, did love the mouse. But the love affair was (as they often are) brief. This one lasted about 45 seconds, at which point he tossed the mouse aside to play with his toy fire truck. Still, I persisted, with the superiority of the childless: surely my own offspring, regardless of sex, would favour a lovely Scandinavian toy over a Tonka.
And then I had a son.
What has struck me is not that the clichés have proven true, but how true, how stark the differences between boys and girls can be. After Leo was born, I stubbornly rejected the stereotypes. I surrounded him with a menagerie of plush bunnies and civilized Danish mice, and overspent on French sleepwear and non-superhero clothing. But there is only so much a Scandinavian mouse and a Breton stripe can do. Nothing captivated Leo as much as a mode of transport. When in the presence of toy trucks, his preference is to push them at feral speed (through the house, through other people’s houses, through parks and puddles). And when we arrive at a playground, he invariably scans the landscape in search of a suitable vehicle and proceeds to push it through nearby bushes and, ideally, muddy puddles. By the time we leave, he tends to look like Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone. As if, instead of having visited a city park, we had just barely survived a sojourn in the Columbian jungle.
To be fair, Leo does have other interests: he also loves sewers. In that pre-child life, I had imagined going for little exploratory walks with my toddler, pausing to, say, pick flowers. Yes, the occasional bloom has been appraised, but a “walk” is more likely to involve Leo stopping at every sewer grate so that he might toss rocks, leaves, dirt, etc., through the slats. One afternoon, after having spent altogether too much time familiarizing myself with every sewer grate in the GTA, I asked a friend: “Did your kids go through a sewer phase?”
“Umm, no,” she said, looking confused, “Mine were never really into… sewage,” she said with a superiority she couldn’t be bothered to hide. (She has girls.)
If my friend seemed flummoxed by my line of inquiry, I am forever disoriented—a tourist and fraud in this Republic of Boyhood. And if I always imagined myself enjoying flower-sniffing strolls, it’s also because I always imagined—or, rather, assumed—I’d have a girl. This is less because I didn’t want a boy and more for lack of imagination. I, frankly, could not possibly conceive of being a mother to one, in the same way that I can’t conceive of, say, living in space. This land and language of boyhood—with its unrelenting, driving energy, with its trucks and (god help me) hockey—seemed terrifyingly unfamiliar to me. I felt I’d be a better mother to a girl and naturally concluded I would have one. (Flawed logic, I realize.)
In Leo’s defence, he’s no thug, he’s a dreamy, tender-hearted fellow, and loves many things—animals and music and babies—and has a particular affection for all things that live in the sky (stars, clouds, the moon, etc.). (Polka dots, to him, are “baby moons.”) It’s just that, for nearly two years, nothing quite enchanted him or held his attention quite like trucks and trains and all their wheeled relatives.
When I think of the boys-versus-girls gender divide, a binary I was raised to view as antediluvian and passionately disavow, I think of a trauma (I mean, incident) that occurred when Leo was about 18 months. We were visiting a friend and her two young girls in Brooklyn. Upon darkening her doorstep, I noticed my friend’s cat’s bowl of kibble sitting on the kitchen floor.
“It might be best if you put that bowl on the counter,” I suggested.
While my friend took the time to ask: “Why?” Leo had beelined for the dish, commenced sampling its contents, throwing a pawful of pellets to bounce (much to his delight) like pebbles across the tiles. My friend’s girls looked on in confusion and genuine concern, and the older one enquired: “Mummy, what is he doing?” Her children had never, I gathered, felt compelled to taste-test, let alone explore the velocity of, the cat’s meat cookies.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” my friend said, as if she wasn’t versed in the habits of young cavemen.
The paleolithic reference is not, it turns out, an exaggeration. Joe Henrich, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, tells me: “Boys are especially interested in projectiles, in anything that has propulsive motion, even as infants. So, one avenue that boys might get interested in is trucks and cars—because they move.” Boys are also motivated, Henrich explains, to turn things (rocks, toys, cat food, etc.) into projectiles. “Humans have evolved to throw. We know this by comparing our shoulders and arms and musculature to non-human primates. But we need to practise. Across societies, boys are much more interested in throwing things than girls. Boys will get rocks and try to hit targets and trees and all kinds of things, and want to spend much more time throwing things than girls,” he says, dating this behaviour back to hunter-gatherer days. “A division of labour started about a million years ago. Men tend to do the hunting—especially when it comes to hunting big prey with projectiles. Girls had to trade off time spent throwing rocks with time spent being mothers, nursing, caring for infants.”
Unfortunately, it seems Leo often feels compelled to turn himself into a projectile—sitting still does not appear to be a talent. “There’s good research from many different hunter-gatherer societies showing that boys explore space much more widely than girls,” Henrich says. “The best evolutionary theory we have for that is that during food-gathering, you could shop around a known landscape to gather berries, for example. But if you had to go and hunt a giraffe, you had to travel many miles and sometimes tens of miles. So little boys might be trying to train their minds to be better at spatial cognition because in their ancestral role they would have needed it. The behaviour is a leftover from their ancestral selves,” he says.
It’s now clear to me that when Leo is on the lam with his truck at the park, off-roading through the bushes, he isn’t being badly behaved—he is looking for a giraffe. And when he was decorating my friend’s kitchen with a confetti of kibble, he was just connecting to his ancestral self. Professor Henrich adds: “I have two girls and a boy. I share your experiences in terms of raising a boy! If anything, we try to bias things the other way, but it doesn’t matter, my son always goes back to the trucks and the projectiles,” he says. So does mine.
I find matchstick cars everywhere—in my coat pockets, in drawers, in my boots. Leo leaves them for me, presumably much like my cat once “gifted” me with rodents. The other day, he felt compelled to give me several cars while I was in the shower. “Here you go, Mummy!” he said, cheerfully tossing cars at my feet, as if he couldn’t imagine how I could wish to bathe without cars. But what has surprised me is not only his affection for his family of vehicles, but the ardour and tenderness of his love.
If he hasn’t taken to actual dolls, his trucks are his dolls. Yesterday, he carefully washed Frida’s “face” in the bath with a washcloth (Frida is a train) and fed Baby (a cement truck) some of his ravioli. Recently, I discovered that my nanny had brilliantly tied one of Leo’s little trucks to a ribbon, so that he might walk it like he would a puppy. And he does. “Come, Truckie!” he says gently.
When Leo turned three this past winter, we did not celebrate on a construction site or in a subway car, much to his despair. A mother I know recently threw a birthday party for her daughter and the theme was cats: they decorated crates and filled punch bowls with hillocks of whipped cream so that the invitees might pad around like kittens and lap up the clouds of cream. My son loves cats—we have three—and he has arguably learned some of his behaviour from his whiskered siblings. (He clearly shares their taste in cuisine.) But should I ever throw a cat-themed party, I suspect he would be less likely to lap up the cream than to loft it onto the walls. I’ll never get to throw a feline-themed party. But some dreams are best tossed cheerfully down the sewer grate.
Olivia Stren is a Toronto-based freelance writer, and mother (and car butler) to 3-and-a-half-year old, Leo.