Commentary

Spirited Play Is Good for Boys and (Yes!) Girls

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Authors of a bestselling book argue that boys need more freedom to take physical risks and test their spirit of adventure. Caryl Rivers says bravo to that, as long as girls join in the play too.

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Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)--Should we return to a world where little boys brave risk and danger in childhood games while girls are content with sugar and spice and everything nice? Are we "feminizing" boys in our modern, technological world, denying their true manly nature?

That's the suggestion made in the bestselling "The Dangerous Book for Boys," by British brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden.

The appeal of the book is nostalgia. It harks back to rural boyhoods of an earlier age, when boys played mainly outdoors, skipped stones into ponds, made their own bows and arrows and enacted heroic adventures. In fact, the book takes me back to my own childhood, when the neighborhood kids used trash cans as shields for playing knights and galloped over the neighborhood pretending to be Western outlaws or lawmen. My best girlfriend Beano and I had just as much fun joining in these adventures as the boys did.

Indeed, today, when kids spend too many hours indoors, and when school administrators shudder at any piece of playground equipment as a lawsuit in the making, the book offers a refreshing message.

"In this age of video games and cellphones, there must be a place for knights, treehouses and stories of incredible courage," the authors contend.

The problem, of course, is that the authors portray these activities as boy turf. The authors even say that boys should carry handkerchiefs, to dry girls' tears when they cry.


'Boy's Games' at Risk?

Some are using the book to bash women's rights advocates. Rush Limbaugh, for one, uses it to fortify his claims that feminists have tried to "wipe out" traditional boys' games. Christina Hoff Sommers ("The War Against Boys," 2000) says the book validates traditional sex roles.

But female critics, on the whole, aren't knocking the book's idea of a more robust childhood. They just want their girls to be part of it. And many parents who like the book's main message are asking, why not a similar book for girls? (One has already been signed up; "The Daring Book for Girls," by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, co-founders of the blog Mother Talk, is due out in the fall.)

Time magazine, in a July 26 piece titled "The Myth About Boys," finds that boys are not in crisis, but overall are doing well, except on the obesity front. The magazine praises a North Carolina camp where boys drop from a rope swing into a lake, build log forts and climb mountains. These activities are described as being good for boys, giving them confidence and self-esteem--exactly what I got from swimming in cold mountain streams and hiking in the woods in Girl Scout camp. Who says adventure is just boy stuff?

The quest for "Dangerous Boys," however, is nothing new. It echoes a long line of plaintive cries of "what's happening to our boys?" Rush Limbaugh's rant is hardly original. It's a concern that's as American--and just as traditional--as apple pie. Social critics in 1850 were asking the same question.

"By mid-century," writes sociologist Michael Kimmel of SUNY Stony Brook, "masculinity was increasingly threatened by the twin forces of industrialization and the spread of political democracy."

With the end of the frontier, critics worried, went the ideal of the free, unfettered American man, able to push west, cut down trees, plow the prairie and then just pull up stakes and move again.

Urbanization was changing the landscape and altering men's relations to their work. Before the Civil War, 88 percent of U.S. males were small farmers, independent artisans or small businessmen. But by 1910, less than one-third of all men were self-employed.


Worries of Vanishing Manhood

Americans worried that manhood was vanishing as men became cogs in machines who lost control over their labor; that city life was making men weak and cities represented "civilization, confinement and female efforts to domesticate the world," as one critic put it. Novelist Henry James muttered in his 1886 novel "The Bostonians:" "The whole generation is womanized. The masculine tone is passing out of the world. It's a feminine, nervous, hysterical, chattering canting age. . ."

Cities and culture were equated with femininity to the point that intellectual achievement was seen to be unmasculine, prompting Indiana Sen. Albert Beveridge to counsel boys to "avoid books, and in fact avoid all artificial learning, for the forefathers put America on the right path by learning completely from natural experience."

The Boy Scouts were founded in 1910 in large degree because of a worry about the "feminization" of young boys who spent their days in the female world of school. Some people today argue--Pat Buchanan on a recent "McLaughlin Group" for example--that risk is an inherently male business, linked to aggression, for which females are biologically unfit.


Girls Play More Contact Sports

Others disagree. Dr. James Garbarino, professor of human development at Cornell University and author of the book "See Jane Hit" (2006) reports that girls today are much more likely to be involved in aggressive play and contact sports than in the past.

Garbarino predicts this rise will continue and notes that high levels of testosterone in childhood are found to be associated with physical aggressiveness and expending high energy.

"The more that athletic experience is tied to competition, the more likely it is to produce the testosterone aggression-link. As more girls participate more in competitive athletic activities, their testosterone will rise, and thus they will become more likely to resort to aggression when they become aroused by anger or frustration in the 'heat of the game.'"

A 2006 federal study indicates that today girls are more likely than boys to engage in risky activities that were once seen as male rites of passage. Girls are using marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes more than boys do.

Patrick Rice, a psychotherapist in Framingham, Mass., told the Metrowest Daily News, "It used to be the significant male peers, the jocks, who set the social agenda. Now, oftentimes, it's the young women who do it and the boys are along for the ride."

Risk and daring, it seems, are not the exclusive province of males.

Mothers of daughters may, understandably, not be thrilled about the pot and the booze--or about the hypersexualized images of both boys and girls spewed out by the media. Some kinds of risk are best avoided by both genders.

However, if we, as a society, decide to go back to the treehouses and the heroic re-enactments and the running and jumping games of yore, it should be a journey for both our sons and our daughters.

Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" and a professor of journalism at Boston University.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at
editors@womensenews.org.


For more information:

For more information:

"'Boy Crisis' in Education Is Nothing But Hype":
http://womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2671

Time, "The Myth About Boys":
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1647452,00.html

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