Boys and girls at play.

There's been a lot of talk lately in the UK, and everywhere on the internet, about the gender division of toys. Hamleys recently re-organised their toys according to interest, rather than gender. This was shortly after their headquarters were contacted by feminist blogger Delilah, who pointed out that their 'girl' and 'boy' floors smacked of gender apartheid. Of course, the change wasn't received everywhere with enthusiasm: still quite a few people appear to believe that girls are 'hard-wired' to prefer anatomically impossible dolls and pink tea-sets, whereas boys, if left to themselves, will choose cars and soldiers. This, in spite of all the hard work people like Cordelia Fine have been doing in recent years to explain why this isn't so in words of two syllables or less. Some people's  brains are 'hard-wired' it seems, not to understand. But for those who do understand how hard it is to see what a child, no matter how young, prefers 'by nature', because their preferences are formed by their environment from the time they are babies, and because it's impossible for even the best, gender equal parents, to control more than a tiny part of that environment, it is time to take the debate further.

What toys you buy at the shop represents only part of a child's play activities, we all know that. A child is as likely, more likely maybe, to play successfully with a cardboard box and a bit of string than with the latest Christmas presents. This is good, of course, it helps their imagination and our finances. But it has a darker side. Many parents will say that although they would never dream of buying their sons toy guns, the boys still found ways of playing at killing each other, with sticks, with their fingers. Boys will be boys will be warriors. Girls will be girls will be mothers. With teddy bears, paper dolls, pets or small siblings.

I have nothing against playing mother. It is a fine occupation, and one which I would encourage more in little boys. Too often I have seen boys laughed at or chastised for pretending to perform domestic tasks, pushing a pram, wearing an apron, etc. It seems that little girls are 'by nature' designed to play these games, where nature means the approval of parents, peers, teachers and everyone else they might encounter, not to mention that all powerful influence, the little girl on the advert, looking at you from the tv screen, posters on bus shelters and the boxes in the toy shops. It is clear that if you want to succeed in life, you should do as she does.

But what of the boys who would play war? What of their parents who are 'powerless' to do anything about it, because, after all, they don't buy toy guns? Warring is a very powerful experience, they say - it's you and your team against the rest, it grabs all your instincts and emotions, magnifies them, focuses them - it's part of the human experience. I think I know what they mean. When on a couple of occasions, as a child, I have been at war, against indians, extra terrestrials, etc., I have felt the exhilaration, the sense of belonging, of being out of myself. Mostly, the excitement comes from the sense that you're out to kill, that you're unbound, that you can really hurt someone, even if it's only pretence.

So, great, you think it's harmless and enjoyable to let your kids pretend they're killing other human beings. How about letting them play rape, or torture? These are, after all, real things that go on in wars just like the fighting. And if you want your play to be more unisex, and to include kids who're not so good at running, say, then you can let them play the rape or torture victims. That way it's more realistic and more inclusive. It can be quite varied and imaginative as well. If you're in quiet surroundings and there's just a couple kids, they can play date rape. If there's one girl and a bunch of boys, they can play gang rape, with a couple of boys holding down the girl while the others take it in turns to pretend to rape and beat her. Sure, it's disgusting. I'm not happy with myself for writing it down, even. But is it really that much worse than letting kids pretend to shoot each other with the kind of weapons that will cause major destruction to the human body, and to re-enact horror scenes that take place daily in not so distant parts of the world, involving children not much older than themselves?

Can't we just say no?


School days, blood pressure days.

It started when he was four. Some days, he just didn't want to go to school. We'd have to carry him kicking and screaming into the school bus, knowing that he'd probably be allright once he got there. The kicking and the screaming was always for us only, with other people, he would be calm.

Then he got a bit older, and a bit bigger. Carrying him kicking and screaming no longer was an option. Once he'd started big school, the screaming would begin at 6.30 in the morning, getting up time, not wanting to put clothes on time. No longer for our ears only, it woke up the neighbours. Some days we'd manage to make him go, some days not, and then, we'd have to make a fast decision as to who would stay at home with him, whether we could get a last minute childminder to come, whether we could afford it. Then we'd have to find time to make up the work we'd missed, somehow, find the money to pay for the extra childcare.

Really not knowing what to do, I contacted a forum for autistic people and their family. What do you do when you child won't go to school? The responses were not helpful. How dare you keep your child away from school, they asked? Would you allow a non-autistic child to miss school? Do you think his education doesn't matter because he's autistic? Why don't you just tell him he's got to go?

I pictured myself telling him, over the screaming. At the time he was just beginning to talk, and mostly in Turkish, at that, a language I had no command of. I felt powerless. Another person advised me to make sure he had an unpleasant day if he stayed at home: no toys, no videos, just work. I didn't even try it out. Max in an worked up, not wanting to go to school state, was a head banger. At the slightest contradiction, he would begin to scream at the top of his voice and bang his head hard, on the floor, on the wall, on the furniture. I couldn't let that happen. I had to pacify him. Just do it, they'd said. Don't let him bang his head, they'd say. I couldn't even begin to imagine how it would be done.

Then in the second semester it stopped. He started to go school every day, or nearly, quite happily. We became used to having our days to ourselves, free to go about our work, and with a little bit of time spare at lunchtime to get together, my husband and I, to discuss strategies for the following day, just in case something went wrong. Often we used that time also to discuss how to help Max in other ways. We decided to keep him from school one day a week, Friday, so he could go to his special ed. classes in the afternoon and not be too knackered. We worked out how to use social stories to communicate with him better and help him deal with his anxieties. We found a way of getting help for him in the school, even though there was no real provision for that kind of thing here.

Over the following year, we had some scares, some nervous moments, he did miss school a few times, but we were able, mostly, to write it off as him not being quite well: a lot of autistic kids aren't great at recognising when they're sick, or communicating it. So we would assume he was and he'd go back the next day. On the whole he had a great year. He changed a lot, he learned a lot.

Then it started again this November. At first, we'd think he was sick. And he was, at least some of the time: we were all plagued by some nasty colds that just wouldn't go away. But, now more verbal, he made it very explicit that he did not want to go to school. He no longer wanted to work, get up in the morning, he was going to stay home, play and draw. A couple of times we managed to drag him to the school bus. Then we got a phone call from the driver saying he wouldn't come out to go into the school building. The teachers managed to coax him out, but Max didn't do much that day, and the next day, he stayed home.

This dragged on until the Christmas holiday, during which he spoke of going back in January fairly enthusiastically. His teachers were very sympathetic. No one told us this time that we just had to make him go. No one accused us of being bad parents, or not trying hard enough. This morning was the first day back. He got up. Reluctantly let me put on his clothes. Complained of tummy ache, so didn't eat. Refuse to brush his teeth, and kept up a low pitch moan while I was putting on his coat. Downstairs, with his dad, he ate a pastry, and waited for the bus, all the time keeping up a monologue in which he told himself he had to go to school. When the bus arrived Max froze. My husband picked him up and carried him, like a marble statue, to the car, slid him in and left. No screaming.
Back home, my first thought was to switch off my phone, so I didn't get the call from the driver telling me things hadn't gone well. I switched it back on immediately, of course. No call came, so I imagine things went ok. Tomorrow is Friday, his day off, so we'll have till Monday to figure how to make him go back. Maybe he'll be fine. We just don't know.

I hesitated to publish this, because it seems too much like a rant about how hard our life is. It isn't. Hard, I mean. We're lucky that we've got jobs that pay enough for emergency childcare when we need it, that we've got a very flexible child-minder, that we live close enough to work that we don't lose a lot of time in commuting, that there's two of us, that our time tables are such that we can box and cox without too much damage to our careers most of the time, and I could go on. But it's taking its toll, on our health - hence the title - as well as our careers. The fact that there is no obvious solution and that a lot of people are unsympathetic makes me wonder how many parents are in that situation and just don't bother talking about it. Talking about it with friends often leads to them saying 'most kids don't like going to school'. If you're in the same situation as we are, you know this isn't the same thing. And if  you want to talk about it, we're here. 
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