Why Doesn’t Santa Bring Girls Toy Trucks? Boys Toy Ovens?

The images of children in toy flyers hasn’t changed in decades.

Posted Dec 09, 2018

Flipping through the holiday toy flyers that land in my mailbox, I’m astounded to see how little things have changed since I was a boy, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Sears Catalogue. Back then we assumed guns that shot plastic flying discs (what were they called anyway?) were for boys and dolls that wet their diapers were for girls. One would expect, then, that five decades might have chipped away at these stereotypes. A quick glance through those flyers, however, and one sees that very little has changed. Girls are still most likely to be shown in domestic situations, with baby dolls, playhouses, or being studious with art supplies and books. Sometimes they ride pretty white horses or unicorns. Boys are usually the ones shooting things from one wickedly wild invention or the other. If there is any overlap at all, one finds it on the science pages. Though still mostly boys when it comes to making things go boom, getting dirty or holding something electronic, girls are often portrayed as doctors (healing a teddy bear, of course) or, maybe, doing something cool with a robot. Even LEGO still tends to sell sets of blocks in highly gendered ways with different colored blocks to build different models that appeal specifically to gendered stereotypes of boys or girls.

Looking through those flyers, I wondered, if it is just my impression of stereotypes persisting or are our children’s toys as traditional as they seem? And does it matter? Though major retailers like Target removed the boy and girl labels in their toy sections back in 2015, change has not occurred on a deeper level.

What do Parents Think?

There is a surprising amount of research that shows we are far more stuck in gender normative attitudes than we might think, especially when it comes to our children. In a study of 324 Austrian 3-6-year-olds and their parents, recruited through daycares, Marlene Kollmayer and her colleagues found that parents who hold more stereotypical, gendered attitudes favored their children playing with gender-specific toys. Trucks for boys, dolls for girls. What was intriguing, however, was that attitudes most predicted the strength of a parent’s attitude against cross-gender play, but wasn’t much of a factor when parents expressed a preference for gender normative toys. In other words, the more parents held the opinion that there are ways men and women should behave and play, the more parents hate to see their child playing with a toy marketed for the opposite sex. But give the child a gender “appropriate” toy and these parents’ attitudes flatten out. It doesn’t appear to matter all that much to them, as long as it isn’t a toy that is associated with a different gender. One could almost sense in these findings a fear of having one’s child appear different. This was especially true for parents who were younger, with fewer years of post-secondary education, and male. Mothers were more likely to endorse children playing with cross-gender toys, as were parents who were older, and with higher education. 

The situation is not likely to change any time soon, at least until the stories we tell about toys changes. A special issue of the journal Sex Roles edited by Lisa Dinella and Erica Weisgram in 2018 (which includes the Kollmayer study) brings together plenty of evidence from around the world that children are cued by colors (pink and blue, or any color that someone tells them is associated with their specific gender) to select toys that are deemed appropriate for their gender. The stories adults tell children about their toys, and the way marketers introduce the toys, also seem to play a big role in children’s choices. In a very real sense, those advertisements with children pictured playing with one toy or another (all conveniently color-coded) are telling a visual story to our kids about what they should and should not play with.

Of course, there are those who say genes are to blame, and there is a small bit of evidence, even from studies with primates, that explain why more girls choose toys that role play caring while boys migrate towards toys that are destructive. But these deterministic arguments tend to be undermined by the greater evidence that children are actually quite malleable in their toy selections if their parents make different choices available to them. I like to think this is true, though I think we have a long way to go before we can conduct research with children where they haven’t already been influenced by the social narratives that define them by their gender.

Maybe this is a case of both/and. Nature and nurture are fighting it out over which presents Santa should bring. I have raised both boys and girls and made every effort to introduce cross-gender toys to my children two decades ago. (Don’t all mental health professionals experiment on their own children a little?). It didn’t work very well with my son. The only use he had for a boy cabbage patch doll we called Buddy was holding it by the legs and smashing Buddy’s head into his bedroom door when he was “timed out” for hitting his sister. Thankfully, he is now a wonderful, kind young man in his mid-twenties but he was a bit of a handful when he was five. His sister, meanwhile, was a little more flexible in her choices, though she never thought much of the beautiful yellow Tonka truck we gave her to play within the sandbox, preferring to create elaborate make-believe adventures for her menagerie of stuffed animals.

All of this brings me back to those flyers and poor ol’ Santa making his rounds in December. We parents appear to be both instigators of what our children receive and potential authors of a new future. The problem is that most of us still hold the belief that some toys are for boys, and some are for girls. Santa, and his elves who print the flyers, are just following our lead.

References

Dinella, L. M. & Weisgram, E. S. (2018). Gender-typing of children’s toys: Causes, consequences, and correlates. Sex Roles, 79, 253-259.

Kollmayer, M., Schultes, M., Schober, B., Hodosi, T., & Spiel, C. (2018). Parents’ judgments about the desirability of toys for their children: Associations with gender role attitudes, gender-typing of toys, and demographics. Sex Roles, 79, 329-341.