Boys And Toys

There’s a bit of a dust-up over in England because Prince George, the four-year-old son of Prince William and Kate Middleton, was seen in public playing with a water pistol.  The toddler, his Mom, and his sister were out to watch his Dad play in a polo match — hey, we are talking about the British royal family here, after all — and the young boy fooled around with the toy gun, as well as a toy knife and a slinky, as he sat on the grass.

prince_george_toy_gun-560x390This sparked outrage from some quarters, because Great Britain evidently has recently seen an increase in violence with guns and knives.  Some people said that water pistols shouldn’t be seen as fun toys, and it was wrong for his parents to allow Prince George to play with them.  One Twitter user fretted that playing with realistic toy guns could lead to children mistakenly shooting themselves with real guns.  Another critic, drawing long-term conclusions from the little boy’s play, said:  “Sad to see George playing with a gun when the whole country has a gun/knife crime situation. Maybe in training for killing wild life in later years.”  Really?

It’s hard for me to believe that people don’t have better things to do than worry about little boys playing with toy guns.  When I was a kid, the family toy box included a few western six-shooters and a sheriff’s badge, a cap gun, a few water pistols, and a machine gun that made a whirring noise and sprayed red sparks from the barrel when you pulled the trigger.  The other boys in the neighborhood had a similar toy arsenal in their homes.  All of these ersatz weapons came in handy when UJ and me and the other kids in the neighborhood were out playing “army” or “Rat Patrol,” cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers.  These games were like a glorified form of hide and seek that allowed the kids in the neighborhood to get out, run around, and use up some of the energy that kids have in abundance, and having a fake gun was just part of the game.

Astonishingly, none of the kids in our neighborhood went on to become gun nuts or mass murderers.  We played with toy guns because it was fun, but it was just that — play.  And the army-style games alternated with playing baseball or football or freeze tag, or building forts, or catching lightning bugs on a warm summer evening.  Playing with guns didn’t glorify guns, or desensitize us to violence, or leave us permanently scarred because one of our gun-toting friends captured us, or any of the other psychobabble concerns that people are articulating now, they were just toys that were part of great games.  I’m not a gun person, but if I were a kid I’d do it all over again.  It was fun.

Obviously, people in England have a right to be concerned about violence, but we can be sure of one thing — whatever the cause of that violence might be, it isn’t four-year-old boys playing with water pistols.  Give the kid and his parents a break, and let him go about his play without projecting adult concerns on a little boy’s innocent fun.

Should “Bossy” Be Banned?

The Girl Scouts and Lean In, among others, have started a “Ban Bossy” campaign. The underlying concept is that “bossy” is a negative term that is applied to young girls more than young boys, and discourages girls from showing leadership.

This is a complex issue — made more complex by the fact that girls apparently apply the term to other girls much more frequently than boys apply it to girls, or boys. I don’t remember using “bossy” when I was a kid. Young girls apparently use it because they try to play more cooperatively than young boys. “Bossy” girls aren’t viewed as sufficiently cooperative.

I don’t think the word itself is the problem. I don’t equate “bossiness” with leadership. Bossiness connotes more of a desire to control, an unnecessary and officious intermeddling with everything that is happening. Leadership, in contrast, is about making people trust your judgment and decision making and want to follow you. People who are bossy — whether they are male or female — tend to be irritants rather than leaders.

I’m all for encouraging girls to be leaders. God knows we need more capable leaders! I’ve worked for women throughout my career, and they typically have been terrific supervisors and team leaders. Like all good leaders, they know how to get people to work together effectively. Whether they were called “bossy” as kids or not, they developed leadership skills and characteristics.

The “Ban Bossy” campaign, however, risks confusing a word with a mindset. Let’s encourage girls to be leaders, but let’s not confuse them by suggesting that leadership is bossiness writ large. It isn’t.

Bridal Shower Avoidance Syndrome

Our nephew is getting married early next year.  Today the women of the family are having a big bridal shower for his lovely fiancee., no male — except perhaps an unlucky waiter — will be present for the affair.  In fact, if they have any say in the matter, neither the groom nor any man in the family will be anywhere in the vicinity during the shower or for a reasonable interval before and after.  Their Bridal Shower Avoidance Syndrome has kicked in with full, testosterone-laden force.

Why is this so?  Is the urge to avoid any event that features a pink color scheme or “finger sandwiches” linked to the Y chromosome?  Did the evolutionary processes that produced successful male hunter-gatherers also produce an instinctive aversion to squealing and tiny hand claps as a way of expressing glee?  Or, do men simply learn, through bitter experience from the earliest days of boyhood, that they really don’t the slightest idea what is “cute,” or what might be even “cuter” — and, in fact, they really don’t care one way or the other?

The Science Of Fake Smiles

What really distinguishes a fake smile from the genuine article?  And why do people give fake smiles, anyway?  Science offers some answers.

We’ve all seen fake smiles — in school pictures, on the faces of clerks taking orders at Starbucks, from politicians, and in countless other scenarios.  It turns out that people are better at detecting fake smiles in photos than in real life, because we tend to study photos more closely.  And the key indicator of fakiness is not the position of the grinning mouth and bared teeth, but the eyes.  A muscle around the eye called obicularis occuli contracts when a real smile flashes across the face, giving the eyes that crinkle that separates the real deal smile from the pretenders.  Most people who aren’t actors, con men, or psychopaths just can’t control that muscle.

Studies also indicate that women smile more than men.  The theory is that girls are encouraged from an early age to be more expressive emotionally than boys.  Girls also learn faster than boys that a good fake smile can be an appropriate, polite, social response under certain circumstances — like when Gramma gives you a lame gift for your birthday.  In view of that, it also should not be surprising that women tend to be more adept than clueless male brutes at detecting fake smiles in others and accurately determining what a person’s smile really means.

It follows that if people learn to give fake smiles, and then realize that people often can’t tell the difference, they may decide to wear a fake smile as a matter of course.  When you walk down a Midwestern street and see people with smiles on their faces, how many of them are fake?  No way to tell for sure, of course — but studies also show that people smile much more infrequently when they are alone.