My 3-year-old boy loves trucks and various heavy vehicles. He can identify bulldozers, cranes, cement mixers, diggers, dump trucks, loaders and a dozen contraptions that I did not know had names. If his vocabulary is any indication, a career in the construction business beckons.
I am a stay-at-home dad. As a small child, I preferred the works of Enid Blyton to toy cars – or so my revisionist parents claim. Cranes did not feature at my last paid job. The garbage truck’s weekly visit does not excite me. The person with whom my son spends most of his time is his father. Where then does his fixation come from?
Apparently, the Y chromosome is a truck depot. According to a paper titled “Why do monkey and human males prefer trucks?” little boys like trucks and girls like dolls, not only because they are socialized to do so, but because of “neurobiological differences between males and females” in both humans and monkeys.
As a properly enlightened bourgeois, I am resistant to the idea that a child’s (or monkey’s) preferences are innately determined by gender. Of course, my son’s love of trucks is hardly unique. A visit to any toy store will confirm that he is just like other little boys. What exactly is my problem, then?
Simply put, I dislike trucks. They are pushy and overstated, a symbolic contrast to my introverted personality.
If neurobiological differences between males and females explain my son’s obsession, what accounts for my anti-truck prejudice? Could it be socialization? Is my masculinity questionable? Can the study be trusted?
Indeed, research findings in psychology can be unreliable, an uncomfortable fact that academics acknowledge. A sobering paper argued that broad claims about human psychology are often based entirely on samples from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies, whose members, including young children, “are among the least representative populations . . . for generalizing about humans.”
I did not grow up in America. So one possible explanation for my dislike of trucks is that I was not “WEIRD”.
By conventional standards though, I was quite weird. In the first grade, I wanted to be a quant. It was a gentler time when the depredations of Wall Street’s wolves were not widely known. My father read an article glorifying the financial wizards who use higher mathematics to make investment decisions. What better future career, he reasoned, for a little boy who showed an aptitude for numbers (i.e. could count, somewhat shakily, to 100)?
In hindsight, I see the real reason for my dislike of trucks: my parents’ class consciousness.
The sad reality is that no little South Asian boy plays at being a fireman or construction worker. Children are thoroughly socialized into the virtues of a white-collar career: doctor, engineer or—these days—computer programmer. In our house, this meant that a spirited game of “Operation” was encouraged, but play construction equipment was not.
To some extent, my parents succeeded. I studied math in college, continued to dislike trucks, but never managed to get that dream job on Wall Street.
Forget neurobiological gender differences. Clearly, the answer lay in my failure to socialize my son properly. If my parents could brainwash their child, then so could I!
One night after bedtime, I ransacked the playroom. The apparatus for my son’s indoctrination was hiding in plain sight. A plastic set of yellow construction vehicles, a birthday gift from Grandpa. Several volumes of Bob the Builder, hand-me-downs from a kindly neighbor. A smiling, anthropomorphic crane, part of a sprawling train set.
I confiscated all of it. What socialization and biology had wreaked, more socialization would undo. Math boot camp would start the next morning.
That was two months ago. The trucks have triumphed. I cannot erase them from my son’s imagination.
His obsession has grown. From his playroom window, we watch a cement mixer churn, mocking my failure as a parent.
In better news, my little boy can now count to 20 in three languages.