I’ve been thinking about wheels a lot lately. Specifically the kinds that are given to little boys and to little girls, and the way those wheels can lead to other things.
I’ve got a son, who’s nearly 2. He’s passionately interested in things that go “round and round” and he particularly likes pushing round big things (his buggy, a trolley, a toy pushchair), small things (mostly, but not exclusively, trains and tractors) and zooming around on his scooter.
When he was about 15 months old we got a book from the library called “Dig, Dig, Dig”. It’s full of pictures of “things that go” and incredibly repetitive rhyming phrases, and it arrived in his life at a point when his language development was racing on and he was absorbing new words all the time. And it turned out that, he liked the book so much, the first things he really started to say other than cat, milk, daddy or ball were all pretty much related to construction vehicles. Mixer truck! Road roller! Dig dig! And because he could say those words, I guess we started to reinforce the fact that he liked those things. He could point at them and identify them, so we showed him more of them.
It’s now a few months later and our house is full of trains and tractors and buses. We sometimes sit by the side of building sites and get up early to watch the rubbish be carried away in the rubbish truck. On the one hand, it’s not strange that he’s interested in big colourful things that make a noise. On the other, it’s kind of weird because all of those things are coded somehow as being Boys’ Things. And that’s strange mostly because I’m pretty much the acme of being a tedious feminist and it’s all liberal values and applied appreciation of the arts round here – and don’t get me wrong, he’s also fascinated by the kitchen broom and the washing machine and his dad’s guitar and lights that flash on and off and every electronic device that’s capable of showing Octonauts and a hundred other things – but the preoccupation with Wheels for Boys started to worry me.
And having thought about it for quite a while now, a couple of things stand out:
The first is that trucks and trains aren’t Boys’ Things at all. They’re just things. Somewhere someone made up their mind that boys like them more than girls so they’ve become boys’ things. But that’s ridiculous: things don’t have genders.
The second is that, even though my son loves pushing his buggy and frequently pushes the random children’s pushchair that lives at our local playground, it would never occur to me to get him a pushchair. Now, I don’t think that’s because he’s a boy: I think it’s because it would be another annoying thing to carry around, that wouldn’t even help him move more quickly. And besides, if he really wants to push something, he can just about reach the handles on his buggy, so he might as well push that.
But I guess this made me think about what happens when girls get pushchairs. When a small girl likes wheels and pushing stuff around, it’s more likely that someone might get her a pushchair to push. The thing about a pushchair is that, once you’ve got over the novelty of just pushing it around, it becomes a receptacle for a doll or a teddy. It become a toy that somehow presupposes a desire to nurture and look after things. And you have to go carefully – no running or dashing – in case the doll or the teddy falls out. And I get the opportunity to think about that because I don’t have a child with a pushchair, so it stands out as a difference – something to contemplate.
Whereas if a boy likes wheels he might get some trains and cars and thing that go fast, that zoom away, that give him a love of train stations and buses and weird enormous bits of machinery.
And sure, lots of people give boys pushchairs and girls cars. But when I see a toddler in the park, carefully pushing his or her doll in a pushchair, I often have a moment’s pause and wonder what signals I’m giving my son: perhaps I should be teaching him to nurture and be careful, rather than just run and zoom and jump. Or perhaps that will come with time.
Anyway, wheels. They’re funny things.