Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#114, November 21, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Women often complain that when we tell our problems to a man, he immediately starts coming up with solutions instead of just listening to us.

Personally, I find that admirable, and sometimes downright useful. Surely SOMEBODY should be interested in solving problems instead of just bitching, and I think it's a pity that only boys are trained from infancy to be doers and fixers.

In America, we encourage boys to tinker, and figure things out. We give them model airplane sets, and Lego sets for building skyscrapers, bridges, and mysterious machines with working motors. We give them model railroad trains, and clay and little trees and stations and houses so they can build miniature towns and create entire landscapes - what better training for becoming God? We give them chemistry sets, and let them loose at the computer to figure out how it works. If they reprogram the thing, we may be officially irritated, but we're still visibly proud.

We encourage boys to learn by trial and error what works and what doesn't. They see how high they can build houses out of blocks and model cards, and how many pieces they can remove from the bottom before the houses collapse. Along the way they figure out the rules of stability and the applied laws of physics.

We give them miniature tool kits for presents, and let them go around the house pounding on things with their toy hammers. When fathers tinker with their cars, or build decks or make small repairs, it's usually sons who work alongside them, learning the mysteries of carburetors and oil filters and allan wrenches and lock washers. While my troop of Camp Fire girls was learning to serve tea and make clove-scented pomander balls to make our clothes smell good, my brothers' Boy Scout troop was learning to survive in the wild, using compasses, building fires, pitching tents, and foraging for food.

All of this is training to be George Bernard Shaw's "unreasonable man," as in, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

We also encourage boys to play rough and rowdy, take punishment and dish it right back again - but only with each other. They learn early that they're not allowed to bop irritating little sisters, because it's their job to protect girls.

Not surprisingly, boys tend to grow up to be competent and to feel responsible. Give them a problem other than trash that needs to be taken outside, and they feel obligated to solve it (though not necessarily while there's a good football game on).

I don't say their solutions are always right, mind you - people raised with toy hammers often think most problems can be solved by pounding. (You can observe this any day in Congress.) And it would be nice if men would listen to women long enough to recognize when we do want their solutions and when we're just using our men as sounding boards while we're working out our own solutions.

But the classic female strategy of sharing feelings about a problem is an exercise better suited to adjusting to a problem than to fixing it. If we are wallowing in self-pity, I can't think of anything more valuable than talking with somebody whose instinctive reaction is, "So what are you going to DO about it?"

I am, as it happens, a feminist, who thinks the world would be a better place if men imitated some of women's best qualities - just as I think it would be a better place if more women adopted men's best qualities. There's no reason why all of us can't be part of the solution.

That's why one of the things I'll be grateful for on Thanksgiving is noisy, twitchy, rebellious, independent, funny, kind-hearted, generous little boys. And the decent, hard-working men so many of them grow up to be.

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