08/29/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If You Give a Girl a Hammer

On Sunday, Annie Rose was feeling restless. She was unable to go stomping in the rain with her two sisters because she was wearing a cast for her broken leg. She had watched a movie and was now scooting around the house, trying to find an activity.

My husband was puttering around in the living room, arranging nails and wooden boards and an electric screwdriver so that he could build a small bookcase. Annie Rose thumped over to him. "Can I help?" she asked with interest. For the next hour and a half, Andrew and Annie Rose worked together. He showed her how to use the hammer and she gleefully pounded in the nails.

Annie Rose LOVED it. She felt a surge of pride at her accomplishment and could not stop giggling with excitement.

"She actually did a really good job," Andrew told me later, somewhat amused. "It took her a lot of hits, but she got each nail in; she didn't bash either of our fingers and she didn't damage any of the wood."

It is so easy to fall into the gendered trap of assuming that hammers and nails are the preferred territory of boys, but the truth is that my 5-year-old daughter attacked this building project with more enthusiasm than I have seen her show in weeks.

For a little while, she forgot about the fact that she can't run and swim and she delighted in the solid thwack of laying hammer to nail. Annie Rose is a girlie girl who likes to wear dresses and play with dolls, and she can lose herself for hours in projects such as making elaborate wedding dresses out of Kleenex and tape for her stuffed animals.

But when Annie Rose unexpectedly showed a spark of interest in tools, my awesome husband embraced it as a chance to foster her interest. Lise Eliot's book Pink Brain, Blue Brain includes research that shows that while it is developmentally normal for preschool boys and girls to choose different types of play, their brains are also more malleable at this age, and their interests can change.

As Peggy Orenstein wrote in an article about gender-based toy marketing last December for The New York Times, "At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them." By building a bookcase with Annie Rose, Andrew can actually increase her brain's interest in these types of gender atypical activities.

And this first engineering project set Annie Rose to thinking. "For my birthday (not until April, but it's always good to plan ahead), can we build a bed for my new R2D2?" she asked Andrew.
If you give a girl a hammer, then she will want to build...