All Hail the Backhoe! What is It about Boys and Trucks?

by Anna Watson
Issue 93, March/April, 1999

boy in toy truckMy 22-month-old son is mad for trucks. And not just any trucks–construction vehicles. Out of the vast variety of images he’s exposed to daily, he has honed in on dump trucks and cranes. How did this happen? My partner, Laura, and I are still trying to figure it out. Neither of us drives a big rig. Riley doesn’t watch TV. He has dolls. He loves flowers and animals. But boy, does he love backhoes.

At first, I was wary. My feminist sensibilities are slightly offended whenever a mom on the playground says proudly of her son, “He’s all boy! He loves trucks!” Isn’t there more to being a boy than loving trucks? Would a girl who loves trucks be all boy, too? Haven’t we come further than this? Surely my son, coming from our enlightened, nontraditional family, won’t have a truck gene. Wrong. There is no escaping Riley’s enthusiasm.

As the stay-at-home mom, I am drawn rapidly into Riley’s new interest. And after a brief initial hesitation, I plunge willingly and headlong into the world of the construction site. Riley’s excitement is infectious, and I find myself making detours so we can watch a forklift or excavator at work. In the car, he practically levitates out of his seat with joy when we pass a backhoe. “Mo’! Mo’!” he shouts. I try to explain that I can’t conjure earthmovers at will. But I suspect he thinks I’m being stingy. We buy a toy dump truck at a yard sale, and a relative in Illinois sends a nifty scale model of a John Deere tractor wheel loader.

But mostly we collect books. Touring our area libraries, we are rewarded with a truckload worth of choices. One library has an entire shelf labeled “Transportation.” Elated, we bring home Diggers and Dump Trucks; Heavy Equipment: Work Trucks; Mighty Machines; and Construction Zone, their pages wrinkled and much-mended. In his fervor, Riley puts his mark on Mighty Machines, ripping the giant blue excavator right through the bucket. I get out the tape. I’m amused to see how many of these books have been written by women, and I’m pleased that they are, as a whole, informative, fun, and much less sexist than I had imagined. Which is good, because we read them over and over. Laura despairs. But I recall that my mother had to read Captain Kitty to me until she could recite it verbatim, so why should I be spared?

There must be something primal about big trucks, something that draws Riley to the noise and excitement. Work trucks are big, brightly colored, loud. They are stronger than anything in his daily life, and they probably seem unpredictable in a wonderful way. They are rough, with a potential for destruction not unlike his own impulse to hit, kick, pinch, and bite when he is frustrated. He and I spend a lot of time in our car, too – a much milder sort of machine – so he knows all about piloting large metal vehicles down the road. If Mama seems powerful driving the car, think how omnipotent a boy must appear in his imagination, perched behind the wheel of a backhoe. In an earlier era, a toddler might have watched men with bows and arrows, or a brace of oxen, and would have been given his own, boy-size replicas to play with. But nowadays, diggers and dumpers are what introduce him to that important, yearned-for, grown-up world.

When Riley first became interested in construction vehicles, I would sometimes shyly, casually approach moms of girl toddlers. “Does she . . . like trucks?” I would ask, usually earning a pitying look in reply. “Oh, sure, she likes them, but she’s not crazy about them.” Well, Riley is crazy. Absolutely nuts. Lately, as I try to keep him from stomping ants and bullying other kids, I’ve been wondering if maybe it really is a boy thing, as people say. Something to do with his biological makeup. “A boy’s being vibrates to the rhythm of testosterone,” say Don and Jeanne Elium in their sometimes infuriating but always interesting book Raising a Son: Parents and the Making of a Healthy Man. This hormone, they say, drives boys and men through a repetitive cycle of emotional buildup and eventual, sometimes-violent release. More benignly, it makes them really like trucks, with these machines’ barely contained violence, power, glorious potency, and superior force. Trucks are, let’s face it, cool!

Riley’s truck fetish has forced me to confront a much bigger, profoundly resonant issue. I expected to approach childrearing on an individual basis – one mom to one boy. But the older Riley gets, the more I find that I am dealing with huge forces, maybe even genes, informing our relationship in ways I did not expect. I have a son who loves trucks, a love that seems to be a common denominator among boy toddlers; even Riley’s gentle, retiring friend Justin is wild for them. Many afternoons, when I would love to sit quietly with my little boy, reading, drawing, telling stories, listening to music, he bounces about wildly, waving dump trucks in my face, rushing after the cats, shrieking. I’ve watched first-time moms of girls look on in horror as Riley revs around the playroom at the library, wrenching books and toys from other kids, shouting, looking for reactions and connections, looking to make friends. Normal boy behavior? It pleases me that some of my antiracism work can inform my ongoing exploration of gender differences: Respecting and accommodating differences doesn’t mean we raise one gender above the other. We just accept that they are different.

Today, for better and for worse, our gender behaviors are knit so closely into the weave of societal expectations, our individual expectations as parents, and a child’s personal taste and biology, that none of us can pick it apart.

In the 1970s, feminists were interested in giving dolls to boys in order to feed their nurturing side; as a feminist in the 1990s, I love seeing Riley nurture his front loaders – they fall down, bump their heads, get kisses, eat, nurse, poop on the floor. I do not feel remiss for having “caved in” to the truck gene, as a friend put it the other day. Allowing Riley the room – and the books, songs, toys, games, and encouragement – to explore his love for construction machinery has not robbed him of the whole range of complicated emotions making up his psyche.

I watch Riley paging through the book Diggers, a string of drool swaying gently from his chin. Here is the Big Muskie, the biggest shovel ever made (a bus sits in the blade), the trencher, the mole that dug the Chunnel. “Mama, read it!” he commands. We start over, examining each picture in detail, and I realize again how much I am enjoying myself.

I would never have spontaneously decided to research construction vehicles. But here I am now, able to inform unenlightened acquaintances about the difference between backhoes and bulldozers. I perk up when I pass a construction site, even if Riley is not with me. It’s so much fun that I hope I’ll be able to let it go when he does – when his interest turns to, say, weaponry, as everyone assures me it will. I can see myself, birthday after birthday, giving him the latest innovation in construction machinery toys, while a teenaged Riley, too shy to point out that he is now into tax law, accepts them politely and without enthusiasm.

But now we are in bed. Our two cats make their midnight noises, Laura sleeps deeply, the moon is shining in the window. Into the quiet of the night, Riley calls out, “Backhoe! Backhoe!” and turns towards me to nurse.

Anna Watson teaches ESL and writes and edits in the Boston area, where she and her son Riley have been keeping a close eye on the Big Dig.

Illustration by Russell Thurston.

The Big Book of Things That Go, a DK Publishing Book, Dorling Kindersley, New York, 1994. Minimal text and great photos – exactly what a tiny truck fanatic wants.

Bulldozers by Peter Brady, Bridgestone Books of Capstone Press, Mankato, MN, 1996. An admittedly narrow topic. But if your household holds a ‘dozer fan, here’s your tome.

Construction Zone by Tana Hoban, Green Willow Books, NY, 1997. Wonderfully vivid photos of heavy machinery, with brief, untechnical explanations.

Diggers and Dump Trucks by Angela Royston, Little Simon, NY, 1991. A British take on big rigs, complete with wonderful stop-action drawings showing how the machines work.

The Heavy Equipment series including Diggers, Work Trucks, Earth Movers by David and Patricia Armentrout, The Rourke Book Co., Inc., Vero Beach, Florida, 1995. Nice pictures, and a text targeted toward gradeschoolers.

Lots of Moms by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin Books, USA), New York, 1996. One of the moms drives a forklift. Cool!

On the Move. . . Earth Movers by Mark Rich, Childrens Press, Chicago, 1980. Nice pictures, with more text than most. A good choice for budding foremen.

Power Machines by Ken Robbins, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1993. Lovely faux-sepia photos make the machines look magical.

Sam Goes Trucking by Henry Horenstein, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1989. A boy accompanies his dad in a big rig, hauling fish to market.