The toy aisles are brimming with toys, most of which are clearly designated as for boys or for girls by their gender-marked packaging. Entire aisles devoted to girls’ toys of pink and purple, and to boys’ toys of blues, grays, and blacks, await us. The toys gender-marked for girls are largely grooming, fashion-related, or princess-related (preparing girls for their expected role as objects of beauty
?) or caregiving-related (preparing girls for their expected role as mothers or homemakers?). Even the girls’ toys that ostensibly promote building and spatial skills (like the Lego toys for girls) are simple compared to comparable boys’ lines, and still focused on themes of beauty and home. Contrast those with boys’ toys, which are more likely to foster the development of spatial skills, building, comfort with technology, sports
, and (unfortunately) aggression and battle.
My concern about these gendered toys is that they perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes and roles. Most of today’s girls will not spend the majority of their adulthoods as stay-at-home moms (or as princesses on a pedestal). Likewise, most boys will not spend the majority of their adulthoods with homemaker wives (they will need to be comfortable with household labor and with caring for and nurturing children), nor will most be soldiers or fighters. Our children need toys that will prepare them for active roles in both the home and workplace, that promote a wide variety of skills, and that help them develop their own unique aptitudes and skills (rather than promoting only those that conform to traditional gender stereotypes).
I know that some readers will argue that boy and girl children naturally prefer gendered toys but I think that there is more to it than that. For one thing, there is the high incidence of “tomboyism,” girls that prefer so-called boys’ toys and activities (approximately 50% of adult women say they were tomboys as children). Apparently, many girls “naturally” prefer toys intended for boys (I am personally thankful I had a brother with Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels tracks).
It is also apparent that many children express only those toy desires that are gender conforming. Once children are clear on their gender and have learned that gender matters as far as what is acceptable and unacceptable (which most do by age three), they edit their own behavior for gender “correctness,” thinking that they should eschew toys marked for the other gender (this is known is “self-socialization"
). This leads to early preferences for gender-conforming toys that are not so much “natural” as culturally created.
Here’s an example from one of my students as he reminisced about the Easy Bake Oven he wanted but felt he could never have due to his gender:
I still remember the first time I saw one in action. I was probably seven at the time. My friend’s sister opened a packet of chocolate cake mix into a bowl, mixed it with some water, poured it into a little tray, and gently placed it into the oven. A few button presses and only minutes later, she had a nicely baked cake that was ready to be frosted. I was blown away. Screw making a racetrack to launch Hot Wheels off the stairs, I wanted to bake my own cake! But I couldn’t! There was absolutely no way I was going to be caught using those pink cooking utensils to make a cake that I would frost with pink frosting and purple sprinkles.*
*The maker of the Easy-Bake Oven now makes a black oven as a result of consumer activism.)
Children also receive social feedback rewarding gender-conforming toy choices and play, and punishing gender-nonconforming choices and play. This example from another one of my students illustrates differential gender reinforcement; this is the idea that we learn gender-appropriate behavior as others reward us for gender-conforming behavior and punish us for gender-nonconforming behavior. It explains some gendered toy preferences as well:
As I walked by the toy section inside Target, I saw a mother with her two younger children (one boy, one girl) browsing the "girls" toy aisle. The boy saw his sister pick up a Barbie doll, which their mother then placed in the cart. The boy saw some other thing (still on the "girls" toy aisle) that he thought was interesting and asked his mother for it. His mother then proceeded to yell at him for wanting the toy, saying that "Boys shouldn't play with these things," and "I'll tell all of your friends that you wanted to play with your sister's Barbies if I ever catch you wanting to play with something like this again. What would they say if I told them that?"
When we choose a toy for a child, the gender of the child is often our guide, used to narrow our choices. In fact, most people don’t even consider giving a toy clearly marked for a girl to boy, and many would also hesitate to give a girl what is clearly a “boys’” toy. But as you shop this holiday season, consider that most children would benefit from playing with a variety of toys—toys that develop empathy and nurturing, toys that promote comfort with household labor, toys that foster engineering and building skills, toys that promote creativity and science understanding, and toys that promote athleticism and healthy competition. Such variety would better prepare them for the world that awaits them and help them develop more of their individual potential.
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