Boys and Their Toys

The shovel ripped into the pile of gravel with a grinding sound as I sweated through the task of turning multiple piles of gravel into a smooth driveway. Our one acre property had a lot of driveway. Until now it had been nothing but mud and clay. Two dump truck loads of ¾ inch gravel were going to change that. As I strained to spray one shovelful of rock after another into an arc that covered the reddish brown clay, three-year-old Michael loaded his bright yellow Tonka dump truck and drove it over to the space near a railroad tie that I had assigned to him for gravel distribution. He made appropriate truck sounds, imitating the real dump truck that had delivered the rock earlier. He had watched with fascination from the front porch as the truck had dumped its load into small piles equal distances from each other. Even after we spread all of the gravel, Michael, and later his younger brother, spent many hours using their Tonka toys to move gravel from one place to another.

I was reminded of that day, when I came home from work recently and saw the street in front of my house dug up by workers who were fixing a water main. My neighbor’s boys, aged three and five respectively, were sitting dutifully on the porch watching the workmen and their machines transforming our pavement into a large muddy hole. I have no doubt that they went home and practiced what they had seen with whatever toys they had at their disposal. Hopefully their parents had the foresight to buy them Tonka trucks. My sons had all metal Tonka toys: dump truck, road grader, and front-end loader. You can still buy the all metal even though some of the Tonka trucks I have seen for sale recently are mostly plastic. But to young boys, I suspect it doesn’t matter too much until the trucks break. Practicing with toys what they had seen in real life was the important thing. There is some serious brain wiring going on when children construct roads, dams, and other scaled down adult projects using the toys or materials in their environments.

Michael grew up to be the chief electrician on a nuclear submarine. He also spent time as a wire line engineer in the oil fields. Operating cranes, and other heavy equipment was part of his daily life for many years. And his personal choice of vehicle was a top-of-the-line Ram diesel pickup. My sons are living verification of the saying, “The only difference between men and boys is the size and price of their toys.” Although to be fair, they are doing real work instead of engaging in recreational activities.

It is an old axiom that children are too busy watching what you do to hear what you say. But age doesn’t diminish its truth. Children are natural sponges who pull in environmental information starting with prenatal life until they finally leave home. Children who see adults building, repairing, and maintaining their environment will grow up to do the same. Children who see adults destroying, tearing down, or ignoring their surroundings will do the same. I think this has serious implications for educators and parents who want to encourage their children, especially females, into STEM fields.

It’s not enough to give kids a variety of gender-specific toys. They need to see the significant adults in their lives using opposite gender tools and then be encouraged to imitate that behavior. My sons had dolls and toy kitchens besides trucks and workbenches. The youngest even insisted on having a Barbie doll. But more importantly, they saw me changing their diapers, sewing buttons on, and cooking. They saw my wife and I reading books instead of watching TV. So it’s no surprise that books, cooking, and fixing things are important parts of their adult lives.

My wife grew up with three sisters in a very traditional household. She had to leave her comfort zone to do role modeling for our sons. But as an educator, she knew how important it was for her to do so. She had to learn to use a screw driver and hammer. She had to do shovel work in the garden and on snowy days. And I suspect that female role-modeling is one thing missing from the lives of many girls who have the innate ability to enter STEM fields but fail to do so. It is not enough to give girls a Tonka truck. We need to give them role models who drive those trucks. We need to educate their mothers in how to cross gender expectations from the time a girl is born.

If we don’t do these things then we shouldn’t be surprised when girls wrap their truck in a blanket and sing it a lullaby instead of getting down and dirty in the driveway. Monkey see, monkey do.