I have always believed that the manifestation of gender stereotyping is a toy store. Visit any shop and you can get a glimpse of our society’s prevailing views on gender roles. Cars and other automotive toys, construction and strategy toys are for boys. Dolls, Pink Legos, cooking toys, arts and crafts are for girls.
Raised in a gender-neutral family environment, I have always felt uncomfortable with any gender stereotyping, but this grew stronger when I became a mother. So when my daughter was born nearly nine years ago, I was determined not to expose her in what I thought were redundant stereotypes.
I asked all the relatives and friends to refrain from giving her gender specific toys and made clear that pink clothes were strictly forbidden.
This proved to be a hard job and certainly an uneven battle. If you have ever been to a toy shop, you have certainly noticed that the majority of toys are significantly gender targeted. Inevitably, a buyer’s choice is influenced by the labeling, branding and marketing of toys reinforcing stereotypes.
Unsurprisingly, within a few months my daughter was the proud owner of several outfits in a variety of pink shades. A few months later she had a pile of pink teddies and plenty of dolls.
Nevertheless, we tried our best to make available to her a wide choice of toys. We bought cars for her but she did not give them a second look. She was happy playing with her dolls and simply ignored the “boy toys”. We felt defeated and a bit disappointed, but how can you make your child like toys that you think she should like, when she clearly does not show any interest in them?
When her brother arrived three years later, we were determined to give it another go. We soon realized that this was going to be another monumentally lost battle. Our son discovered his sister’s old but hardly used cars and they became his favourite toys. He was happy playing for hours with anything having wheels and once he started nursery, he spent the entire day building ramps and complex structures only to have his cars rolled down.
Once more we felt defeated and a little bit upset. Our children had gravitated towards toys that were ‘conventional’ for their gender and there was nothing we could do about it. With hindsight, we should not have worried at all.
The origin of gender difference in toy preferences remains as yet an unanswered scientific question, but nevertheless the issue sparks popular debates and anxieties. Apparently it is typical for children as young as two to develop preferences, which are considered well in line with their gender. In the first years of their life, children develop their gender knowledge, which is a rigid view of male and female behaviours and roles. How and why children form their gender knowledge is not well established, but just observing adults behaving in certain ways allows them to form an understanding of male and female behaviours and probably see the world through the society’s prevailing gender stereotyping. Obvious characteristics of males and females such as hair length or voice pitch as well as distinct behavioural roles may be engraved in a baby’s brain enabling them to form their gender knowledge. So it is quite likely for instance, that very young children associate dolls with females. At the time my children’s behaviour was simply a phase typical of their age.
As children grow and become aware of the world they live in, they develop what scientists call stereotype flexibility. In other words with age gender stereotypes become more flexible, so boys understand and accept not only that girls can play with cars but also that they can play with more girly toys. It is usually between the age of five and ten that children begin to develop gradually their gender flexibility. Gender flexibility does not necessarily mean that children play with toys targeted to the other gender, but that they accept that toys are not automatically gender specific.
I am happy to report that my children have turned all right after all.
My daughter still melts at the sight of a doll and only yesterday chose to spend her pocket money on a Disney Princess book. But she loves construction toys and puzzle games and building complex train tracks. She is a superhero fan and engages in role-play with her brother going together in great superhero adventures. Occasionally, Polly Pocket nips in to help Superman save the world or Batman has to go home early to take care of his little baby. But I am so happy to see her developing her interests and not being constrained by any gender stereotypes.
My son also shows that his interests do not include boy-only toys. He loves his sister’s dolls and in the past he was very attached to a cute baby girl doll. He still enjoys playing kitchen themed role-playing games and often is involved in girly games with his sister’s friends.
But I often think how difficult it is for parents to choose toys for their children.
Go to any toy shop (online shops included) and most likely you will be faced with pink and blue aisles. Look at the packaging designs and the labeling and you will be excused if you thought that there are only toys just for boys and toys just for girls but certainly no gender neutral toys.
Is this bad for the children? Is it limiting their choices and more importantly does this encourage them to see the world through certain, often redundant, stereotyping roles? Fortunately, parents are becoming increasingly aware of gender stereotypes in the toy industry and they demand a change. Will this be translated into a cultural shift as well, where toys are not gender targeted?
There just might be a glimpse of hope. Last year I visited a well-known toy store in a nearby town and unsurprisingly they displayed their toys in colour-coded labeled aisles (see pictures). This year I visited my local branch and was so pleased to see that they had removed all of their gender targeted labeling.
It turns out that this is the result of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign led by a group of concerned parents. There were already a few other smaller scale efforts, most notably Laura Nelson’s successful campaign nearly three years ago for the Hamleys store to remove its gender-specific signs and pink and blue floors. But this latest effort has gained momentum and has already an impact.
With the parents taking action, will the pink and blue aisles of the big toy stores become a thing of the past? It is too soon to tell but it is refreshing that parents have become more aware of the issue of gender stereotyping and demand a change. It is also so inspirational to see that their actions have triggered a widespread discussion in the toy industry.
I am happy to see that this festive season some big stores do not display by gender. It is now up to us parents to see beyond any gender stereotyping and choose toys for our children that will open their horizons, spark their imagination and sharpen their intelligence.
Look at the Let Toys Be Toys website and sign their campaign“Toy Retailers in UK and Ireland: Stop promoting toys as only for boys, or only for girls”
Toys not just for boys: parents help cut down sexist signs in high-street shops (Guardian)
Serbin, L. A., Poulin-Dubois, D., Colburne, K. A., Sen, M. G., & Eichstedt, J. A. (2001). Gender stereotyping in infancy: Visual preferences for and knowledge of gender-stereotyped toys in the second year. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(1), 7-15.
Trautner, H. M., Ruble, D. N., Cyphers, L., Kirsten, B., Behrendt, R., & Hartmann, P. (2005). Rigidity and flexibility of gender stereotypes in childhood: Developmental or differential?. Infant and Child Development, 14(4), 365-381.