Would you buy a tea set for a three-year-old boy? Neither would I. But the saleswoman in an upscale toy store recommended one to me. I had told her the age and sex of the giftee when I asked her to point me to a suitable section in a tumble of displays. Reluctant to let me browse alone through fake mustaches, wooden puzzles, and Fisher-Price gear, the clerk insisted on being helpful.
She held up a boxed tea service. Inside was a round-bellied polypropylene pot and four miniature cups and saucers in watery pastels. Considering the sex of the recipient, even the washed-out color seemed emblematic.
“It’s quite adorable,” she purred.
“No, thank you. Not for a boy.”
“My son has one.”
Poor kid! Did I imagine it, or did she deliver that in a tone that signaled superior consciousness? Tea sets are paraphernalia for playing house, the hallowed pastime for girls. Was this mother of a son taking a stand against “gender apartheid,” the still-kicking bugbear of Gloria Allred and co.? The whiff of it rankled me.
“No, honestly, I’d rather get him a cap pistol.”
I just had to say that. Churlish of me, maybe, but who did she think a preschool boy would be serving tea to? I have known this little fellow from infancy. As soon as he could stand on his feet, he loved a rumpus, kicking balls around, and throwing stuff. Effects of that prenatal testosterone bath were in full view from the beginning. If he ever gave a tea party, it would be a rambunctious event, guaranteed to purse the lips of donors to Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Foundation for Women.
The clerk turned back to the counter. I settled on a combative-looking Schleich hippopotamus, and a surly crocodile with moveable jaws. These two finely detailed avatars of “nature, red in tooth and claw,” were, I confess, a reaction to the ideological tinge of the clerk’s selection. They were not quite what I had come for. My choice was a quixotic counter-statement to the tenor of the woman’s aggressive guidance.
Liberation Must Start Young!
Her suggestion carried the scent of the current notion, entrenched in elite pedagogy, that boys need to be liberated from masculinity. It is never too soon to sensitize the male of the species, subdue him. Away with snips, snails, and puppy dog tails! It is sugar and spice for everyone nowadays. Socialized to be more like girls, boys will grow into mild, unassertive, non-competitive subjects of the utopian gynocracy that is the ultimate ambition of militant scolds planning next year’s Women’s March on D.C.
I did not say a word of this at the register. Did I want these animals gift-wrapped? Yes, please. The woman was silent as she tied them up in tissue and ribbon. But my muzzled irritation must have communicated somehow. As I was headed out the door, she sent a parting shot: “These are hard plastic. They hurt when they’re thrown.”
A present for a young child is always, in some indefinable way, a gift to parents as well. My toothy hippo and crocodile did not quite rise to the task. So I kept going, stopping next at a bookstore. I did not know what I wanted, only that I would recognize it when I saw it. Sure enough, there it was: Peter Spier’s winsomely illustrated version of “The Fox,” an old English folk tale that dates from the 1500s.
“The fox went out on a chilly night, / and he prayed to the moon to give him light / for he’d many miles to go that night / before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o.”
Blessedly, Spier’s 1961 edition remains in print. It includes the musical score of Burl Ives’ 1945 arrangement of the tale, perfect for a bedtime sing-a-long. An adventure story scaled for the nursery, it is particularly delicious for boys.
The Age-Old Quest
Every classical hero leaves home to set out on a quest. Fox does the same. Obligated by tribal custom to provide for his mate and her pups, he goes hunting, as his ancestors have done from time immemorial. For a diligent fox, that means poaching fowl from a nearby farm and bringing the spoils home to his family. And a good-sized family it is: “There were the little ones, eight, nine, ten.”
Fox steals into the poultry pen. In the manner of Achilles announcing his intentions to the Trojans, he declares: “A couple of you will grease my chin before I leave this town-o.” He goes at his objective without apology. Feathers fly. The barnyard is a battlefield: “First he caught the grey goose by the neck, / then he swung a duck across his back. / And he didn’t mind the quack, quack, quack, / or their legs all dangling down-o.”
Woken up by the commotion, farmer John dashes out with his gun, blowing a bugle to alert neighbors that a fox is afoot. “I better go with my kill or they’ll soon be on my tail-o.” Fox makes it safely home with the evening’s catch. Then Mrs. Fox does the rest. All plucked and dressed, a bird is soon on the table.
Then the fox and his wife, “without any strife, / cut up the goose with a fork and a knife. / They never ate such a dinner in their life / And the little ones chewed on the bones-o.”
My own sons delighted in “The Fox” when they were small. But it was not nostalgia that moved me to pick up the book. It was a sense of foreboding about the wellbeing of our children—both boys and girls—in a culture increasing detached from substantive realities, manhood among them.
The War Against Boys Is Alive And Well
It has been some 20 years since Christina Hoff Sommers published “The War Against Boys.” That war has not subsided. Instead, it increased in fury. The lunatic phrase toxic masculinity has seized our attention and entered public discourse as if it existed on the World Health Organization’s shortlist of emerging pathogens. Masculinity is something to be combated, like the Ebola virus or a hemorrhagic fever. Its epidemic potential is becoming the basis of “male studies” courses in colleges and universities.
What has “The Fox” to do with all of this? Everything, really. Children respond to stories differently than adults do, a matter J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis took seriously. Progressive grown-ups—feminist psychologists, gender theorists, assorted epicenes—can read the tale as one of violence, theft, competition for resources, and an illustration of that dreaded thing, the “patriarchal voice.”
By contrast, a child sees in “The Fox” only a father taking risks (farmers have guns!) to provide for his family. And doing it well.
Children root for the fox. With the ruthlessness of innocence, they applaud his valor in the chase. His indifference to the eighth commandment does not apply. This is a beast fable and he is, after all, a fox—exempt from certain human imperatives but exemplary by any vulpine measure. And by some higher ones, too. Trust a child to know the difference.