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Slate's Explainer Answers 2010 Question of the Year: Why Do Boys Like Sticks?

Ah, sticks. The endless possibilities they bring.

In December, Slate’s Explainer posted a list of questions that the knowledgeable one was either unable or unwilling to explain, inviting Slate’s readers to select the one that most deserved an answer. The 20,000 plus folks who chimed in had quite a range of questions from which to choose. If a person is allergic to cats, would he also be allergic to a lion? Are all languages equally lip-readable? Could mankind actually blow up the moon?

Compelling as those important queries may be, all three took a backseat to the winner: I’ve always pondered why boys like having sticks. Whether it be walking down a hiking trail with a stick they picked up or running a stick across a white picket fence, boys (including me when I was small) seem to have a knack for having a stick. Is there some kind of explanation for this behavior?

This question intrigued me on many levels. For one, I, myself, am a sucker for a good hiking stick. I select a new one every year during my annual backpacking trip. But my 9-year-old girl loves them, too. In explaining why boys like sticks, can the Explainer shed any light on what my daughter’s stick fetish says about her?

But first, back to the original question: Is there some kind of explanation for why boys seem to like sticks? Slate‘s answer?

“Yes, of a sort. Boys may like sticks because they’re so well-suited to boyish behavior like play-fighting—a long, thin piece of wood can serve as either an imaginary sword or gun… But there hasn’t been much empirical work relevant to this question, so we can’t say for sure whether boys are more inclined than girls to play with sticks, or whether boys prefer sticks to other objects.”

Though there might not be enough empirical work to prove that boys are, indeed, more inclined than girls to play with sticks, there is plenty of data on how boys and girls go about choosing their various playthings. Toddler boys, when given the choice, tend to opt out of playing with “feminine” toys such as dolls, where as girls are more flexible. They’ll do just fine with a doll or a dump truck. The Explainer points out that there may well be a cultural element to boys’ avoidance of Barbies, given most parents’ tendency to give their children “gender-appropriate” toys.

But the Explainer also points out another theory for the gender preferences, one that has less to do with culture and more with innate gender differences. “If boys like to run around and manipulate things, a plastic car with rotating wheels might seem more interesting than a stuffed animal; likewise, if girls like to snuggle up, the animal would be more interesting. These inclinations could themselves be socially conditioned, of course, but they might also reflect some earlier genetic or hormonal influence.”

It’s at this point that the Explainer does a little math. Since it’s proven that boys are drawn to “masculine” toys, and since they seem to be drawn toward sticks, sticks must be masculine. So instead of telling us why boys like sticks, he tells us why they are masculine. “Several theories abound. Some have argued that color plays a part—that girls are naturally drawn to pink objects, for example. Or that boys prefer sharp lines, while girls like rounder things…Or maybe boys like harder objects, while girls prefer softer ones.”

No offense, Explainer, but that all sounds like a bunch of nothing to me. My oldest daughter was subjected to the same cultural bias. Dolls were once the norm for her, but by age 4, she had skewed toward the masculine: wearing boxers, playing rough, even at times insisting we address her by a masculinized version of her own name.

Through it all, my wife and I never made a big deal of our daughter’s “gender bending,” as we didn’t want to make her self conscious about it. After all, we didn’t think she was wrong or right for her tomboy ways. We simply thought she was…who she was. A wonderful and unique little girl.

With regard to my triplets? They have just one set of toys which they all share. Since we have two boys and a girl, they have both “masculine” and “feminine” toys. And I’ve found just the opposite of what the Explainer has explained. It’s my little girl who’s pigeonholed into all things feminine, insisting on her baby doll, while my boys seem just as likely to play with trucks are they are to fight over the pink baby stroller. (Though, they usually convert the pink baby stroller into a garage for all their match box cars.)

All of which leads me to two conclusions.

First, in what limited empirical evidence I’ve had access to, there is no rhyme or reason behind toy selection. Instead, it all seems to come down to the individual. Which strikes me as wonderful.

And second, though I love the Explainer, he really didn’t explain anything to me with regard to why boys like sticks, or, for that matter, if it’s even a proven fact that such is the case.

Maybe he should have taken the vote in his own hands and explained the reason why bath tubs aren’t bigger. Now that our trio are full-blown toddlers, I find myself asking that very question every night!

Image: stock.xchng

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