Why boys like sticks: the Explainer's 2010 Question of the Year.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 12 2011 4:10 PM

Why Do Boys Like Sticks?

An answer to the Explainer's 2010 Question of the Year.

See a Magnum Photos gallery of boys with sticks.

Do boys like sticks? Click image to expand.
Do boys like sticks?

A few weeks ago, we posted our annual, Christmastime list of the Explainer questions we'd been either unwilling or unable to answer in the previous year. Questions such as, Why aren't bathtubs bigger? And, If a person is allergic to cats, would he also be allergic to a lion?Then we asked our readers—you—to pick the entry that most deserved an answer. More than 20,000 people cast a vote, and the winning question is presented below. But first, the runners-up:

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Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

In third place, with 1,209 votes: Could mankind actually blow up the moon? Blast it with nuclear missiles until it was just rubble?

In second place, with 1,754 votes: Are all languages equally lip-readable?

And in first place, with 2,874 votes, the winner by a landslide and the Explainer's Question of the Year for 2010:

I've always pondered why boys like having sticks. Whether it be walking down a hiking trail with a stick they picked up or running a stick across a white picket fence, boys (including me when I was small) seem to have a knack for having a stick. Is there some kind of explanation for this behavior?

The answer: Yes, of a sort.

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Boys may like sticks because they're so well-suited to boyish behavior like play-fighting—a long, thin piece of wood can serve as either an imaginary sword or gun. (Juveniles in other animal species also play-fight with objects.) But there hasn't been much empirical work relevant to this question, so we can't say for sure whether boys are more inclined than girls to play with sticks, or whether boys prefer sticks to other objects.

Here's what developmental psychologists do know: Boys can be very discriminating when it comes to choosing a plaything. Studies of children's recreational habits find that when given the choice, boys tend to avoid dolls and other unmanly items, while girls are more flexible—they'll play with Little Mommyor a toy truck. This "snips-and-snails" effect takes hold from a very early age: One experiment concluded that 3-month-old boy babies spend more time staring at trucks than dolls (and vice-versa for girls); others suggest that sex-based preferences for certain objects take hold between the ages of 1 and 2. Either way, the inclination seems to be in place before children have any understanding of their own gender.

To some extent, babies and toddlers have these preferences for cultural reasons: Parents give their kids gender-appropriate toys, and otherwise show approval for certain kinds of play but not others. It's altogether possible—almost certain, in fact—that a boy will have internalized these unspoken rules about which objects should be used for fun, and which ones he should avoid.

There's another theory for the gender preferences, though. Maybe the boys aren't just following cultural rules when they shun dolls in favor of toy trucks. Perhaps the choice of object has something to do with the sorts of activities that they prefer: If boys like to run around and manipulate things, a plastic car with rotating wheels might seem more interesting than a stuffed animal; likewise, if girls like to snuggle up, the animal would be more interesting. These inclinations could themselves be socially conditioned, of course, but they might also reflect some earlier genetic or hormonal influence.