Somehow, aged 30, I’ve never gotten around to getting my driving license. So now, spurred by the impending prospect of a car-bound life in Sao Paulo, I’m learning how to drive. Except I find I’m learning about a lot more than just driving.
At the end of my first lesson with the lovely Nicholas (my AA driving instructor is a bit like a cross between Stephen Fry and Father Christmas), I was told that I was doing a good job, but here was the thing. I needed to go out and buy a toy car. And then play with it.
Baffled, I realised Nicholas was right. I’m inept at the actual mechanics of cars. He recognised that part of my fear around driving to date has been my general lack of knowledge about how these big hunks of metal actually move and work – and that he thinks is squarely down to the fact that I never played with them as a child, never felt their wheels guide me towards what it’s possible and what’s not, never figured out three-point turns as part of my own hi-speed car-chases on the bedroom floor. Yet that is exactly what most little boys in the world (whose parents can afford toys) do. They start driving, really, aged about three.
So of course you’d expect a huge difference in how boys and girls/men and women learn how to drive. Like most little girls, I grew up playing with dolls, (in the days before Barbies came with their own cars). My dolls weren’t terribly expensive or trendy; they were usually handmade by an aunt or a hand-me-down. But they were my dolls, part of my ‘family’ – dolls I washed and dressed, took tea with, and conversed with regularly on a wide range of topics. In a funny way, playing with dolls is one of a little girl’s first experiences of socialisation (albeit a bit one-sided). Anyway, Nicholas made a good point when I told him that yes, I’d never had any toy cars, but I’d had dolls instead.
He said that little boys, when they get bored of their toy cars, do whatever they can to slowly destroy them, knowing that that’s how they’ll get a new one. Little girls, on the other hand, take precious care of their dolls so that they get bought more of the paraphernalia for them, from doll accessories to doll houses. Nicholas is convinced that he can see the evidence of this childhood gender-based differential when his students first get in the car to drive. True to stereotype, women seek to protect and preserve their own car and those around them, while men are much less concerned with the preservation of the car and much more concerned about getting and demonstrating their skills and thrills. Massively subjective of course, and a sample of one, but nevertheless one with a good few decades of teaching experience.
There must be so many ways in which the toys we are given as children shape how we interact with the world. Driving lessons thirty years down the line are just one of them.