Before my kids were born I had strong feelings about gender stereotypes and toys. “Don’t buy them cars just because they are boys,” I warned my family members, adding that blue onesies and jumpers were also out. Oh, I had plans. My kids would play with dolls and trains equally. They wouldn’t have an inkling that some people imposed rigorous gender roles in their children’s playrooms.
As with most grand pronouncements made by soon-to-be parents, mine eventually fell flat.
More than six years into this parenting gig and my two boys play with “boy” toys — superheroes, modes of transportation, and LEGOs.Events followed a fairly similar path in the homes of my friends with girls. You can start off as a no-princess hardliner, but how do you respond to your adorable child when she bats her eyelashes and requests Barbie Mariposa, the Fairy Princess Catania? Good intentions fizzle in the face of marketing, peer pressure and the desire to see your little one smile.
Increasingly, many believe the key to bridging the gender toy divide begins on the store shelves. Many European toy stores have switched out their pink aisles in favor of a more topical organization. Building toys go together in one section and action figures land in another. This means Barbie is hanging out with G.I. Joe, while the EZ Bake Oven can be found among the Icky Sticky Slime Time Kits. Kids and their parents who don’t feel limited to one section of the store assign fewer gender roles to toys that can be enjoyed by anyone.
Research shows that children who have access to building and science toys score higher on tests that measure knowledge of math and engineering. This is important, as many young girls, lacking those early foundations, feel shut out from technical professions. A study by the American Society for Quality of Children showed that only 5% of 9- to 17-year old girls were interested in engineering careers, compared to 24% of boys in that age range who were planning STEM-based careers.
Toys like Goldieblox and the LEGO Friends line for girls can be a stopgap measure to help ease girls into more technical play. But ultimately these choices reinforce the division of girl play and boy play, with the field of girl-specific toys being limited and, frankly, less interesting. Long term, we need toys that are available and attractive in all types of colors, with packaging that shows all types of kids using them.
And we should get rid of anything boys-only, like some of the wrestling and other action figures that are so hyper-masculine. My kids love toys such as Magnatiles and Snap Circuits, both of which they’ve played with at the homes of their female friends. According to experts, kids who play with toys without a strong gender bias develop more physical, cognitive, musical, and academic skills than those who don’t.
Since he’s 6, and doesn’t yet know how to get on the internet, I’ll go ahead and share what my son Elliott is getting for Christmas this year. It’s a rainbow loom. And, shamefully, I’ll admit that I asked a friend if she thought a boy would really want a toy that makes bracelets. She shrugged and replied, “If that’s what he asked for, why not.” It was a good lesson, and a needed reminder that kids really don’t care about gender. They just want cool stuff.