Toy Shopping Tips: How to Promote Gender Equity

Promoting healthy development and the unique interests of each child.

Posted Dec 01, 2014

With toy shopping season in high gear, parents should think carefully about purchases and the messages they send with their gifts. The trends to seek out toys that empower girls and counter sexist stereotypes offer families opportunities to promote play that is fun and encourages the unique interests and healthy development of all kids.

As a parent and professor of gender studies, I have noticed that in the past decade, the marketing of toys to children has been increasingly depending on traditional gender norms: pink and pretty for girls, blue and tough for boys as well as making girls’ toys ‘sexier’. This holiday season, parents have an opportunity to purchase toys that help girls develop strength in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), boys develop their caring and creative side, and any kid develop into a well-rounded, curious adult.

Barbie computer engineer - remix

As toy companies and stores have created more differences in toy ads and aisles, children and parents have been speaking out against the limiting stereotypes these toys reinforce. One young girl in Britain took to social media to express her frustration at the marketing in her toy aisle. She likes superheros and didn’t like that the alarm clock she wanted was marked as “fun gifts for boys.”  Her parent is supporting this child’s critique of toy preferences and using it as an opportunity to question gender stereotypes and take action against them. The store has apologized and changed the display – a great lesson to show kids that speaking up can lead to change. 

Lego ad -

Lego toys had a history of being gender-neutral and supporting creativity, design, and building skills in all kids. A sample insert from a 1974 kit reads as follows: “The urge to create is strong in all children…a lot of boys like doll’s houses, they are more human than spaceships. A lot of girls like spaceships, they are more exciting than doll’s houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them”. Unfortunately, with the growth of gendered marketing of toys, Lego created “Lego friends” in 2012. This line reinforces stereotypes of girls wanting pink and purple toys focusing on cats and horses. Parents buying Legos might consider getting traditional and “friends” Legos sets for their children, since all Legos are interchangeable and promote different kinds of creativity.

 Recently, my 4-year-old son asked for a baby doll whose eyes open and close, just like the one in the classic 1970’s children’s book William’s Doll we often read at bedtime. He also is crazy about the Frozen movie and was excited to get a princess Anna dress to play in. Some parents think these toys are inappropriate for boys, but I want to help him learn that caring for children is a valuable trait and there is nothing wrong with enjoying pretty things. He also enjoys wrestling and shooting games, so these toys provide balance in his play and encourages different kinds of imagination. 

William wanted a doll to hold.

Research shows that rigid gender role stereotypes are related to dating violence and boys who are raised to embody traditional masculinity are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior (1). In my new book, Supporting transgender and gender-creative kids, my co-editor and I bring together research and scholarship about how living in a world of gender binaries is harmful for all of us, but particularly hostile to transgender and gender-creative kids and adults. Our book offers tips to support kids to question and critique gender norms. If we want our kids to grow up to be more well-rounded and develop to their full capacity based on their unique strengths and interests, we need to be more careful and critical of the toys and stories we bring into our own homes. This holiday season is a great time to vote with your dollars and take to social media with your critiques to amplify our voices to toy stores and companies to end gender stereotyping.