Monday, January 24, 2011

Should Little Boys Play With Kitchens?

by Judi Ketteler, Posted Jan 18th 2011 9:00AM

Friends teased our writer when she said she was buying her toddler a
toy kitchen for Christmas. Here's why she did anyway.

From the outside looking in, there's nothing extraordinary about my
kitchen. In fact, I already wrote about its lackluster design sense.
But the woefully outdated cabinets and ugly countertops are
unimportant to my two-and-a-half year old, Max. The only thing he's
interested in is that daddy is in the kitchen cooking, and anything
daddy does, Max wants to do.

When my husband, Allen -- a stay at home dad who does 99 percent of
the cooking at our house -- heads into the kitchen to start dinner,
little feet are often close behind. "Need to cook, too!" Max will say,
grabbing potholders, a wooden spoon and the old egg poacher he's
appropriated as his pot. "I make gumbo!" he'll say, practicing his
ever expanding food vocabulary, which now includes words like paprika,
black beans and onions.

little boys play toy kitchen little tykesThe writer's son Max at his
new toy kitchen. Photo: Judi Ketteler

The boy loves everything about the kitchen: the clang of pots, the
sound of food sizzling, the many buttons that need pressing and things
that need measuring. So this Christmas, we decided it was time to get
him his own kitchen. About a month ago, I started searching for play
kitchens. What I discovered is that the majority of them were clearly
geared toward little girls. If they weren't pink and purple, then they
showed girls playing at them. Not only that, we've endured some
teasing from people; it's more in-fun than mean-spirited, but still,
it's enough to bring home the fact that we're traipsing on the
hallowed ground of masculine identity in America. I'm sure the toy
store is happy to take our money either way, but the overriding
message in the world of toy marketing still seems to be that boys
should get bats, bikes and big honkin' trucks -- better to leave the
cooking and playhouses to the girls.

I came across a story in the UK's DailyMail about a survey from Red
Tractor beef and lamb that found that a third of men won't do any
cooking at all in the kitchen during the holiday season. According to
the company's press release, about half of the women surveyed say they
wish they had more help in the kitchen. I know that most of my
memories of holiday meals involve the women cloistered in the kitchen
cooking and then later cleaning up, while the men watched TV.

But are we seriously still here, clutching to this division of labor
that's been with us for years? As my household illustrates, many of us
have evolved beyond such traditional understandings. Still, our
messages to boys haven't quite caught up.

Consider the fact that a little boy is interested in many things: The
way a basketball bounces, cuddling with a baby doll, figuring out how
things are put together, watching onions sauté, helping put away
laundry, racing his toy car and getting messy decorating cupcakes. As
he gets older, he's more encouraged to pursue the "boy" interests, and
less encouraged to pursue interests related to domesticity. Parents of
boys get the message too: After all, if the kitchens are pink and the
doll clothes are frilly, parents will pass them over and opt instead
for the stuff they can more easily imagine their boys playing with.

little boys play toy kitchen little tykesMax and his daddy practice
cooking together. Photo: Judi Ketteler

There's a theory about boys: If, as they grow into men, nothing is
expected of them around the house, they begin to lack confidence in
spaces like the kitchen (about one-third of the men in the survey say
they lack cooking confidence). I definitely see that. I've heard some
of my girlfriends complaining about how their husbands struggle with
basic things, like knowing what to feed their toddlers for lunch. But
here's my question: Do you give them the chance to figure it out on
their own or just fall back on the same old "husbands are just useless
in the kitchen and with childcare" soundtrack?

And if it's just a matter of confidence, how do we account for the
rise of the professional (and super masculine) male chef, as evidenced
by the myriad of shows on TV? Does anyone doubt that Bobby Flay is
confident in the kitchen? Does anyone doubt he is masculine?

How can we have testosterone-overdrive characters like Gordon Ramsay
in the same world as gender stereotypical pink play kitchens? The same
activities mean different things once gender gets factored in, says
John Alberti, Ph.D., English professor at Northern Kentucky
University, a former professor of mine who follows cultural trends and
thinks about this complicated gender business a lot (and loves cooking
shows). With the Food Network (and other) shows that revolve around
macho competition, there's a great divide. "We have 'professional',
out in the world cooking, which is much more culturally valued than
'just' cooking for the family," Alberti says. "Bottom line: Men cook
for money; women cook for free (or, as it's sometimes called,

So how do we send a different message to boys? Restructuring the
roles, as my husband and I have done, is surely one way. I work and
support the family, and my husband is the primary caregiver/cook/
housekeeper. He knows more about how to calm a crying baby, season a
casserole, get a stain out of piece of clothing and load the
dishwasher for optimally clean dishes than most men in suburban
America would ever dream. But he's also such a guy in so many ways.
Domestic work doesn't take the guy out of the guy, or the boy out of
the boy. It just opens up the possibilities for everyone. Our
situation wouldn't be right for a lot of families, but it's made
everything we think about gender roles in this culture way more
transparent. It's also made me realize that our paranoia about
emasculating boys is just, well, dumb. And it winds up short-changing
them -- and short-changing women in the end.

So after the thrill of his Little Tikes Cookin' Creations Kitchen
wears off, Max may decide he hates cooking. He may decide to be a
bounty hunter, or a stockbroker, or an elementary school teacher.
Maybe he'll be a stay-at-home dad just like his own dad. We want our
girls to get the message that they can do anything. Let's send that
message to our boys, too. And let's make sure to emphasize that
"anything" starts at home.

Judi Ketteler is the author of "Sew Retro: A Stylish History of the
Sewing Revolution + 25 Vintage-Inspired Projects for the Modern Girl."

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