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Of Mice And Munitions

For a while The Squirrelly's favorite plaything was the Busy Ball Popper, a.k.a. the toy that parented our child during the Avery Flu. You drop plastic balls onto a platform on the top, they fall through a hole and roll down a curving ramp, and they eventually descend into the base of the toy, whereupon a battery-powered fan accelerates them until they pop out of the top and fall onto the platform, repeating the cycle ad nauseum.

Guns & Ammo
Once the balls are set in motion, there's little to do but watch them. So although it's a neat toy, it's not very interactive. Or it's not supposed to be, at least.

The Squirrelly lost interest in the Busy Ball Popper for a while. Then one day he discovered that he could wrench the entire platform / ramp portion of the toy off. That left only the base, which contains a U of the tube and the fan. Then he began dropping things into the input side of the tube, to see what would happen to them. Some, like his square magnets, would go halfway through and get stuck; other stuff would get flung out the other side. In fact, things that weighed less that the balls supplied with the popper would come flying out of the tube with considerable velocity.

After some experimentation The Squirrelly found the perfect projectiles: the small mice our cats play with. He took to carrying the base of the Busy Ball Popper around the house, occasionally stopping to press the oversized red button that starts the fan, dropping a mouse into the tube, and watching it get shot across the room.

That's right: fifteen months old and my son has already McGuyvered up a rocket launcher.

I'd should find out where my college sociology professor is living these days. I'd love to bring The Squirrelly over to his house, let him loose in the living room to wreak havoc for 15 minutes, and say, "so all gender differences are culturally instilled, are they?"*

Update 06/08: Today The Squirrelly figured out that a handful of cat kibble dropped into the Busy Ball Popper will be expelled like buckshot. Science ... on the march!

*Of course, we did dress him in that camouflage jumper ...

Posted on June 03, 2005 to The Squirrelly


Would you still be knocking down your sociology professor's door if The Squirrelly had MacGyver'd up a sewing kit?

Posted by: Jack on June 5, 2005 10:37 PM

heh... ours is now 8.5--and the ultimate scientist. When he was little, I made sure his room was "gender neutral". He had as many cars as dolls and the color palette of his room wouldn't tip you off to his gender. I figured, why push? He can play with dolls or play doh or trucks, whatever--just no weapons. Everyone told me, "But Boys play with guns... that's what boys do. If you don't give him one, he will just make one." To which, I always replied, "That doesn't mean I should be his arms dealer." I thought I was so clever.

And I was. Our child is sensitive, loves animals and nature and art and falls to sleep every night with a book in his hand listening to classical music.

He also makes weapons out of every object not nailed down in the house. To kill "space aliens" he says with a wry grin on his face. Like that bit of news makes it all ok.

You win some. You lose some. The experts... are always wrong. And they are always right.

Posted by: Wende on June 5, 2005 10:58 PM

Ah, but has he figured out that if he does it in front of the cats they'll chase the mice?

Posted by: Lee on June 5, 2005 11:06 PM

does Squirrelly-squirrel wait to see who is watching with one those "what are you going to do about it" 'looks' on his face?

I just love it when my two-year-old does that!

toddler is a four letter word sometimes.

Posted by: ray on June 5, 2005 11:41 PM

That's the cutest thing ever. We had a ball popper of sorts, but you just hammered them through a hole in the top and then when they came out the bottom you'd have to pick them up and start again. My son loved it but quickly tired of using balls and set out to find every object in the house that would not easily go through the track so he could howl at us until we retrieved said object blocking the insides of the toy.

There are basic gender stereotypes that come wired into children and have nothing to do with nurture. That's why they're called stereotypes. But you never know which ones they're going to have and which other traits they're going to have. As long as he's not hurting anyone we do our best to support my sons' interests. Even when they in no way coincide with our own interests. Which prompted this exchange between my husband and I:
Husband: will you be totally disappointed if Killian grows up to be a Nascar mechanic? You know he'd love that.
Me: of course I won't mind. I just hope they don't beat him up for wearing a pink jumpsuit while he's doing it.

And yes, even though we never gave him any weapons, he still invented some out of thin air for ghost hunting.

Posted by: wensly on June 6, 2005 5:52 AM

It's totally true that young boys, on average, seem to be more active and aggressive than the girls (though in our toddler set, this only really became noticeable around age 3, when a fair amount of cultural stuff has had a chance to seep in).

If I came in during the middle of a story that sounded something like this: "...actually climbed up the bookshelf and had found the heaviest dictionary..." I would assume that the child involved was male, and would probably be right.

But I'd like to speak up for the exceptions to the rule, the 8-year-old boy I know who is terrified of cats and thought "Finding Nemo" was a very scary movie. Not to mention the 7-year-old girl I know who continued to take batting practice for several weeks after breaking her wrist.

A lot of people say "It's just nature" without considering how heavily involved we are in molding that nature. Just the fact that Matthew supported his son's MacGuyvering means Squirrely is more likely to try to get away with it in the future. If he was a girl, and her parents scolded her for breaking her toy, she would learn a different lesson.

Posted by: Carny Asada on June 6, 2005 9:36 AM

It's certainly true that my daughter has come out as girly as can be (all pinks and princesses) without any conscious prodding from us. The other day, though, we were at a playground and a three-year-old boy was very interested in her little slipper shoes with bows, and he asked if they had them in pink. The mother confessed that pink was his favorite color and tried to laugh it off. She was clearly nervous about the whole thing though. She sighed with relief when I informed the boy that they had been the last pair at the store.

Posted by: David on June 6, 2005 9:56 AM

You will, of course, be submitting this to Engadget's Howto section, complete with diagrams and video of the finished product?

Posted by: Eh... Not So Much on June 6, 2005 9:57 AM

Remember that your son has had 15 months in which to learn how to be a boy. And there's been plenty of teaching going on. People often say this - you can look at toddlers' behavior and see that gendered behavior is innate, but they are forgetting, or ignoring, or just downplaying, the amazing capacity for learning that really young kids have. Especially in the realm of langauge, and research on language and socialization with very young children shows that we talk to boys and girls very differently from the time that they are born. Think about nicknames: sport, champ, buddy, vs. sweetie, cutie pie, lovey. Or compliments: 'you're such a big, strong boy!' vs. 'you're such a good little girl!' Caretakers tend to chastise girls for hitting or banging things more often and more severely than they do boys. They tend to make girls but not boys accountable for remembering conversations, so by the time girls are five, they have better recall of conversations than boys (but this ability is not inherently tied to gender, but tied to accountability). This stuff makes a difference.

Posted by: Linguist on June 6, 2005 10:08 AM

I feel the need to argue your point about the gender-instilled traits. I was the second, and last, of two daughters and the vast differences between my sister and I cause me to believe that gender had nothing to do with it. I was always fascinated with my chemistry set, my race track, and my legos. Dolls were boring because there was nothing to take apart and put back together. I think to some extent my dad encouraged me to be more of a scientist like him, but more influential was just that I liked those things more. As parents, most people latch onto whatever will hold the short attention of a child and give them some quiet. My point is that perhaps if you had a female squirrelly, she might be doing the exact same things as your boy, unless of course, as mentioned above, you would have been treating her different from day 1.

Posted by: LJ on June 6, 2005 10:40 AM

You must be so proud...

Posted by: Darren James Harkness on June 6, 2005 10:52 AM

You can fill books and books about how society treats the genders differently, and then simply claim that this defines their behavior without any evidence whatsoever.

Or you can have a kid or two and see that they are essentially born that way.

Only the first path leads to professorship, I'm afraid.

Posted by: The Man From Guam on June 6, 2005 11:40 AM

I await your stories of The Squirrelly at seven, and the explosions that permeate the neighborhood.

Posted by: Keith on June 6, 2005 11:45 AM

You just can't say anything on the net anymore without offending someone.
It's great that your kid has gotten to an age where he can start inventing from the things around him. Watch out, pillow-forts are next.

Posted by: brilligmark on June 6, 2005 12:17 PM

"You can fill books and books about how society treats the genders differently, and then simply claim that this defines their behavior without any evidence whatsoever.

Or you can have a kid or two and see that they are essentially born that way.

Only the first path leads to professorship, I'm afraid."

Ditto this. My child is only 17 months old and thinks that stuffed animals are for tearing or throwing into the dogs' crates. His favorite toys are cars, and if no cars are available he will find something remotely similar to a car and play with is as though it were a car. He will also sit and watch an entire football game with us. He is such a boy, and while we didn't purposefully try to go gender neutral with him, I am definatly the primary care giver, and I certainly haven't been pushing nascar or football!

Posted by: amy on June 6, 2005 12:23 PM

It sounds like Squirrely's gonna' be a killer engineer man. Pretty cool...

I just wanted to say though, that I think linguist's point is pretty decent. Man From Guam and Amy should keep the following in mind: we know that the brain is busy setting up many of the necessary connections for appropriate social behaviour in the first year of life, we know that there are social differences betwen men and women that kids can perceive, and we know that a toddler of Squirrely's age has been shaped in large part by what he has experienced in his life to date. Think about it... do you really think that the toys you give your children are the only influence at 17 months? There's a lot more out there for them to pick up on.

That being said, I don't think we can actually know for sure what's cultural or not. There's no way to separate the two factors. So really, anyone who claims to know either way is being dishonest. You can tell that to your old sociology prof Matt.

Posted by: Blake Richards on June 6, 2005 12:32 PM

I'm about to have fraternal twins - a boy and a girl (next week!) so I'll be able to conduct my own little gender differences study.

BTW, tell Maggie when she visits (a.k.a. Mighty Girl) her cousin is about to have the twins - she's a hard person to get a hold of!

Posted by: Matthew on June 6, 2005 2:10 PM

What is this, Alas a blog?

Posted by: David P. on June 6, 2005 2:36 PM

When he realizes that eggs and plum tomatoes make better projectiles than even mice, THEN it will be time to worry.

And to hire a cleaning service, as well.

Posted by: gladys on June 6, 2005 6:17 PM

My daughter hasn't done a rocket launcher yet (and that's DAMN impressive by the way) but she is totally fascinated by how everything works--and that's pretty much the only toy she will play with--something that has mechanical doo-dads...or destructive powers.

I know that Squirrely probably has figured out his way out of the car seat by now...she would pay him many cheese goldfishes on the black market for that technology.

Posted by: miel on June 7, 2005 12:37 AM

As a mother of identical twins (girls), I gotta say that there is just as much nature as nurture (and vice versa) in baby behavior. The girls are only five months old and already SOOOO different in personality. That said, its eerie sometimes how many things they do exactly the same.

And, for the linguist out there, I say "big strong girl" way more often than "good little girl", and I'd never really thought about it till I read the comments here. (I also call them my "fat little chipmunks". D'ya suppose they'll start hoarding nuts come wintertime?)

Posted by: j_lovescoffee on June 7, 2005 8:01 AM

My mom wanted to know if Squirrelly was showing any tendencies toward voting, property ownership or rational political discourse. 'Cause girls can't do those, I heard! Or was that in 1889?

(Just kidding. There may be trends in gender traits but I'm sure there are female weapons designers.)

Posted by: Super Turtle Girl on June 7, 2005 4:05 PM

Way to go Squirrelly!

You gotta frame that and put it on the wall next to his baby handprints. Most excellent.

I think there's gender wiring, cultural molding, and wiring in general. As a survivor of childhood, I can attest to having been unsucessfully injected into the standard_issue_girl mold. Instead of coming out pink and ready to play house, I turned out like some kind of memory alloy, imprinted (I guess), but retaining it's original shape.

While other girls were doing the barbie thing, I was focusing on covert mold experiments and somehow remained immune to the siren song of ribbons and lace.

It was, I think, not so much a function of failed cultural imprinting or faulty gender programming as an override by general (non-standard) wiring.

Obviously, your Squirrelly possesses an engineering mindset (good genes) coupled with "boy" programming, overlaid by can-do cultural behaviours. Or he could just be overcompensating for those pink onsies;-)

Posted by: YourFriendlyCyborg on June 8, 2005 1:41 AM

Still cannot believe you broke the yoga ball, check out this:

(how big are you?)

Posted by: Karen Ann on June 8, 2005 10:31 PM

MacGyver -- not McGuyver. He's not a McGuy -- Vin Diesel is a McGuy!

Posted by: Meg on June 9, 2005 8:32 AM

My god that is the funniest thing I've read in a while.

Posted by: Dave on June 9, 2005 7:48 PM

I want to get one now!

On gender, I hope Matthew periodically dresses the fraternal twins in the other gendered clothing. I suspect it will be quite educational. People have been observed treating the same baby (sex irrelevant here) differently when dressed in pink or blue. Different toys offered, different response to crying (he's angry but she's scared), etc.

Fraternal twins seems a neat opportunity though he'll probably not have enough time to catch his breath much less plan some social psychology experiments.

I have two sons, the older of which is growing out his hair so he can have a ponytail and the younger who likes to hug the plastic doll we have, and pat it on the back. The older also loves castles and weapons, and the younger likes to pitch wooden blocks at my head. I think it is normal for children to have some wide range of gendered interests. I sincerely doubt most parents of boys actually give them this wide range.

Posted by: CJ on June 11, 2005 10:31 PM

I love the mental picture of the mice flying through the air...

There's always an exception to the rule and the counter example of "Well I'm a boy/girl and I engaged in "typical" girl/boy behavior growing up does not constitute proof that boys are boys and girls are girls and that they behave differently. I like the line about "Only the first path leads to professorship, I'm afraid." So true....

I would venture to bet that anybody who argues nuture versus nature doesn't actually have children. I'd probably win 99 times out of 100.

Posted by: Fred on June 13, 2005 9:13 AM

That's my boy...

Next we'll work on fun things to do with a roll of duct tape and a cat or two.

Posted by: M on June 17, 2005 9:43 AM