Math Geeks and Pi Day and Blowing Things Up

It’s Pi Day, the day that math geeks everywhere celebrate the ability to measure properties of a circle.  Hooray for Pi Day!  I don’t mean to boast, but I am awesome at math.  Oh sure, I would be a little rusty these days, but back in the day I rocked the calculus world.  I remember taking my very first calculus class and knowing at the onset that I loved it and knew what I wanted to do with my life – which at the time had nothing to do with the housewife lifestyle that I now live – and after that, I concentrated on math and economics and statistics.  I worked in a male-dominated field in a male-dominated company; I was the sole woman in my work group, and in the larger group, I had few female colleagues.  I mention this because stereotypically, women tend not to pursue careers in the fields of math and science, although this is changing, slowly. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender roles and stereotypes lately.  It’s been the buzz all over the internet, ever since Lego came out with their Friends line.  As an aside, had the Friends line been available when I was a child, I would have been all over it.  Which brings me to my next point: although I am a math geek and although I spent my career creating models and running mathematical simulations and loving every minute of it, I am also very feminine.  I wear makeup, scented lotion, and jewelry every day.  I spend a lot of time thinking about clothes and my hair.  When I was a child, my clothes were not all pink – because back then, you wore what your mother said you were going to wear, and there were much fewer choices in the clothing department – but I wished they were.  My room was painted pink, my bedspread was pink, and my favourite toy was a dollhouse.  So.  Does my being a girly-girl preclude my being a math geek?  Of course not.

My boys’ toy preferences and interests were apparent from a very young age.  I was distraught that my nine month old son would fuss in his stroller when I wanted to take him for long walks, until I realized that he would be happy in his stroller when I walked alongside busy streets.  Watching the buses, cars, and trucks was enough to make him happy.  At age two, he could name all the major car manufacturers; when we walked past a vehicle he could identify the make and model.  A friend suggested the “Mighty Machines” videos, and my two sons would watch them over and over again.

My youngest son’s favourite “Mighty Machine” video was one about a demolition site.  His favourite game was re-enacting a demolition site, and his chubby, angelic-looking toddler self would build up piles of blocks and toys merely to knock it all down.  When he and his brother were 2 and 3, they would play dinosaurs.  The dinosaurs were not friends.  They killed each other.  They fought each other.  They would unite against the bad dinosaurs and there would be much carnage.  And later, I would see the two boys snuggled together on the couch, my younger son’s head resting on my older son’s shoulder, and they would ask to watch “Mighty Machines”.

The boys are now six and a half and almost eight.  The games they play almost always involve a battle of some kind, something blowing up, death, and destruction.  In discussing boys and their games, my friend Beck articulated something that I had been struggling to put into words; she said that a lot of traditional male play has to do with safely channeling male aggression, and that it also has to do with little boys grappling with the ideas of justice and helping the innocent.  This struck exactly the right note with me.  I once was having a friendly discussion with another mom, and when I joked about my children and their fascination with blowing things up, she told me to watch out, lest I have a “Columbine situation” on my hands.  You can imagine how that made me feel.

I recently read an article in which the author complained about her daughter and her love for pink clothing and princess accessories.  She had encouraged her sons to wear pink and play with dolls, but she disliked her daughter taking part in the same type of play.  She was, she said, more comfortable when her children challenged gender norms than when they conformed to them.  This upset me in a way I could not articulate, and I still can’t, really.  I cannot imagine how I would have felt, as a child, if the only play available to me was of a “male” variety, or even of a gender neutral one. 

My children play games that would seem to be violent.  They don’t have dolls and they don’t wear pink.  They have friends who are girls.  After school, in the playground, they play games where they spy on the bad guys and then shoot them.  They love stuffed animals.  The bad guys get body parts chopped off in their games.  They turn off the TV when a sad story comes on the news.  This morning they saw an itinerant bottle-picker digging through the recycling in our alley, and when I explained what he was doing, Mark teared up and Jake looked worried, at the thought of someone with no job and no home going through other people’s trash for money.

My boys are compassionate, empathetic, and kind AND they are attracted to violent games and toys.  This does not make them violent.  They know the difference between a game and real life.  When we attempt to force children into a particular role, when we insist that boys have dolls and girls have trucks, we do them a disservice.  The world has room for everyone: tomboy girls and boys who play Barbies, as well as girly-girls and boys who stab each other with pretend light sabres, and everything in between.  Children are not what they play with or wear, just as my penchant for pretty things does not take away from my ability to solve an equation.


  1. Our boys would be good friends. 🙂

  2. The whole post is great but your last paragraph made me stand up and cheer because YES! You are awesome and I love you a ridiculous (but non-stalkerish) amount.

    My boys do lots of violent role play. But they also carefully don’t touch butterflies lest they hurt them. There is room for them to be and do both. Or neither. Whatever makes them happy is a-ok by me.

    All that said, I am TERRIBLE at math. But I don’t think it’s because I have a uterus.

  3. Anonymous says

    The idea that being traditionally girly-girl is somehow LESS THAN is pretty pervasive – and the idea that violent male play is somehow going to lead to violent male behaviour is ALSO pervasive. Both of these things make me weary.
    “Children are not what they play with or wear, just as my penchant for pretty things does not take away from my ability to solve an equation.” – powerful stuff, Nicole.
    – Beck

  4. Agree! This is my favorite line: “The world has room for everyone: tomboy girls and boys who play Barbies, as well as girly-girls and boys who stab each other with pretend light sabres, and everything in between.”

  5. So many thoughts, am striving not to write a book in your comments! I’ve also worked in two very male dominated fields because I like the work. I also wear skirts, heels, and makeup. Wow, people can be more than one type – egad! Being girly doesn’t mean I was incapable of working with numbers or with men.

    Also, I have a boy and a girl and although they share many similar traits like the love of being outside and moving around all. the. time., it was an eyeopener to see just how set in their personalities they evidently came out of the womb. My son loved trucks and dinosaurs and explosions when he was a toddler and now loves Nerf guns, Pokemon, and explosions (some things don’t change evidently). My daughter gravitates towards baby dolls, playing house, and wearing purple although she will kick her big brother’s ass wrestling if he lets her (he is 6.5 years older). I agree that we do a disservice to all kids when we try to force them to play with or be things that they aren’t suited to.

  6. Don’t have a lot to add that hasn’t been said – my boy wasn’t as aggressive in play as a lot of my friends’ boys, and my girl will also wrestle her brother to the ground given half the chance, but both of them skew pretty traditionally otherwise. As for the asshat who made the Columbine reference, if those boys had HAD a healthy way to channel their aggression then Columbine probably wouldn’t have happened. I can’t do math, but my daughter kicks ass at it. My husband can’t spell, but my son… um, never mind, bad example. 🙂

  7. I love this post. I’m getting a splitting migraine, but wanted to comment before I slip into a pain-filled haze.

    Nothing shook up my notions about nature v nurture like giving birth to both a boy & a girl. FFS people, let them be kids. I think we’re hypercritical about how kids play these days.

    Reading a toddler’s likes & dislikes & predicting what kind of adult they’ll become is like reading tea leaves.

  8. Amen to that.
    My son likes playing with army men…or dudes as he likes to call them. He plays in dirt. He also plays with girls…or grills as he likes to call them.
    Who cares right? Who are we to tell boys and girls how they must act/play/dress? We are to parent them…but we can’t force them to be something that they’re not..
    Am i making sense?
    I’m on cold medicine.

  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Veronica Mitchell said on Twitter today about allowing her children to play “violent” games (i.e. pretend fighting/battles) because she sees battle as a lifelong metaphor for opposition to social injustice. It made me think that most of our children are at very low risk to commit violent crimes – but they are at very high risk of buying into the pervasive apathy of our culture. And then I saw a post about The Lorax illustrated with this quote: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

  10. I can’t even tell you how much I love this post. Especially the last line. You are amazing.

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  12. I think that children’s imaginative play is about power. They do not have power or autonomy or independence in real life, but in their games they do. In girls this often manifests itself as being pretty, and flirting. In boys, it’s an attraction to things that are big, loud, and violent. People who think it’s progressive for boys to wear pink and play with dolls, and regressive for girls to do the same are — in my experience — displaying their own brand of gender bias.

    I don’t know why people (especially liberal, well-educated, middle class women) are so unnerved by young children’s adherence to sexual stereotypes. You can’t rebel if you don’t know what you are rebelling against, is my theory. Devaluing either gender by dismissing their exploration of gender norms is cruel and futile. Biology is a huge part of everyone’s identity.

  13. Great post. When my son was little he liked to wear heels around the house. I let him because he thought it was fun. Then he just gravatated to the stuff that is deemed “boy.” My daughter plays with anything. She loves her princess stuff but she also likes Transformers.

  14. I love this post – it was so reassuring. I have a boy who likes to blow things up, a tomboy of a girl who wishes she were a boy sometimes, and a girly girl who won’t even LOOK at something that does not have sparkles on it. Sometimes I really despair about what all three things say about their personalities and their futures…it really helps to read that they are normal, sane, and likely to be good at math. Right?

  15. I was a girly math geek. 🙂

    My boys are very much BOYS. They are physical and loud and dirty. But they all have sweet hearts.

  16. sweet and lovely crafts says

    I couldn’t agree with you more! (Except, not so much about the math part- it was NOT my strongest subject. Although, I did major in Economics).

    My son, 21 months, loves trucks, trains and cars. We did not prompt any of this, he has just been drawn towards them. We have an older daughter (4), and so Simon ended up playing with most of her toys for the longest time. Now, it’s hard to get him to drop Thomas and Percy long enough to take a nap. Of course, because he loves everything his sister does, it’s not unusual to see him wearing her tutu around the house either!

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