It’s so discouraging. While out shopping for a gift for a three year old, I was confronted by how little has changed over the last 50 years. Women’s roles may have broadened considerably in the workplace and men may be doing more childcare but you’d never know it if you make a trip down the toy aisle. I found that toys for tots are more gender-categorized than ever. In the 50’s, I remember getting colorful tinker toys and a toy doctor kit as well as a doll for Christmas. Now it seems that choices for girls are bathed in pink and most construction toys are in the aisle of gifts “for boys.”
According to whoever arranges toys in the local big box stores, boys stuff is about sports, action and aggression (think footballs, action figures and light sabers) and girls stuff is about appearances, nurturing and quieter play (think Barbies, baby dolls, dress up/make up kits and crafts kits). Yes, to give the Mattel Company credit, Barbie sets do show her in various careers but the emphasis is still on looking glamorous while she does them. Not so incidentally, Ken doesn’t come with a baby and a diaper bag.
Science projects and construction toys are more likely to feature pictures of boys on the boxes while kitchen sets picture girls. Doctor kits are still marketed for boys and nursing kits for girls despite the fact that more women than men are graduating from medical schools and nursing has long embraced men into its ranks.
What we choose for our children is something to consider. If we want to let our girls know it’s okay to be strong and even tough and our boys know that it’s all right to be sensitive and to care for babies; if we want to encourage scientific curiosity in our girls and appreciation for the arts in our boys, how do we expose them to all that is possible when toys are packaged and marketed in such gender-specific ways? If we want to give our kids every chance to discover who they are rather than what the marketing departments of manufacturers think they ought to be, how do we offer more choices?
Good questions. I can only offer a few suggestions to consider:
- Stock the kids’ toy box with a variety of toys. By all means, give your girl a doll she craves or your boy a football but consider doing the reverse as well. All of my kids got toy tool kits so they could pretend to fix things – and take in the idea that both moms and dads know how to wield a hammer. Each of my young kids, male and female, got a new doll whenever a new baby entered the family. They rocked their babies while I rocked mine. Note: If you’d like to hear a wonderful song about boys and dolls, click on this Youtube recording of William Wants a Doll by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lshobg1Wt2M. (I wish there was a parallel song for girls who want trucks but maybe you can make one up.)
- Provide opportunities for role playing that don’t emphasize gender stereotypes. Any day care or preschool teacher will tell you that the boys as well as the girls like to play in a pretend kitchen. Girls as well as the boys are interested in digging in the sandbox and playing with balls. All kids like to vroom-vroom toy cars and make up stories with animal figures.
- Add music to your lives. Although I wasn’t thrilled when my sister gave my kids some drums, the fact is that they loved them. With a little coaching from me, they learned to do more than just bang on them. Kazoos and toy instruments are a great way to introduce kids to music before committing to lessons.
- Provide quiet time activities that emphasize creativity. Give kids a box of age appropriate art supplies and let them go to it. Once they are 4 or 5, take them on short trips to local museums to see that everyone makes art.
- Don’t forget science kits. I challenge you to find me a kid who isn’t fascinated by bugs. What kid doesn’t love to see a miniature volcano erupt or a rocket take off?
- Books. Books. Books. I know it may seem retrograde but kids do still like books. Take them to the library. Explore all topics. Resist the notion that there are boys’ stories and girls’ stories. A good story is a good story. Ditto for age appropriate video and computer games, music and movies. Don’t be fooled by animal animations. Watch for stereotyping there too.
- Running, jumping and generally moving around is a natural part of childhood. Girls and boys all enjoy having a catch, tossing a football, trying out a martial art and running for the sheer joy of it. Encourage your kids to try lots of things and they will soon find where they have talent and interest.
Why is it important to get beyond the idea that certain toys are girly or boyish? Because play matters. Play is the “work” of childhood. The kids are having a good time but they are also rehearsing the roles they will play as adults and integrating the not so subtle messages of the marketing people into their identity. Research shows that kids who are encouraged to play with gender neutral toys do better academically, socially, artistically and physically. When toys are limited by gender, it limits a kid’s imagination and goals.