Podcast discussion thread: Gender stereotypes (especially in holiday toys)

My inbox teemed this weekend with Black Friday and Cyber Monday holiday sales alerts. Since I have many small children, many of the emails advertised toys. If you have small children, you know that children's toys are among the most gendered products out there. Given that play is how children learn about the world, what's a parent who wishes to challenge traditional gender assumptions to do?

In this week's podcast episode, Sarah and I discuss gender stereotypes at work and at home. It's too big a topic to cover in one podcast, really, or one blog post, so for today's discussion, I want to focus mostly on the toy aspect of it.

There's a certain tedious conversation people like to have, and as a veteran parent I have heard this discussion many times. A person says that he/she once expressed a desire for gender neutrality, so the epiphany is framed in the zeal of the converted, and then the parent says "but boys will be boys! I gave my son a doll and he turned it into a gun!" or some such.

While it is true that men and women, boys and girls, are likely different in some ways, Sarah and I both think of this more as bell curves, much like height. In general, men are taller than women. But there are many women who are taller than many men. There is great overlap between the bell curves, and gender assumptions tell you little about any one person. If we're going to throw anecdotes out there as evidence, I know in my family the differences between my sons are about as pronounced as the differences between my sons and daughter.

I really welcome stories and suggestions from readers on how they navigate these waters. One thing to do is that if a child expresses interest in a toy that is not associated with that child's particular gender, don't make a big deal of it. If a boy asks for a doll for Christmas, give him the doll, rather than go to one extreme or the other ("oh, are you SURE you want a doll?" or "oh, how MARVELOUS that you, a boy, want a doll!")

(If you think about it, super hero action figures are dolls in the same way that Barbies are. It's really not that big a leap.)

Another is to make sure that little girls get access to blocks, and Legos, and other such toys. There's some evidence that in houses of all girls, there may be fewer of these toys, and they really do help with spatial reasoning. Cloud (aka Wandering Scientist), who comments here sometimes, wrote a guest post years ago for Mommy Shorts on toys that help princesses develop math and science skills. She also has a related post on her blog on Toys to promote skills - gender neutral addition.

Finally, there are plenty of gifts that are fun for everyone. Board games, puzzles, markers/crayons/paint, can all be pink and blue. And experiences are really the ultimate gift. Grandparents might consider giving families memberships to local zoos, aquariums, children's museums, etc. You can keep going all year, having all sorts of fun and learning all sorts of things about the grown-up world.

What sorts of presents do you give your boys and girls?

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  • I second toy kitchens, Legos and Magnatiles! I have two boys and a girl and all three love those toys and the pretend play they can do with them. Another type of gift I always go for are craft kits. Even though some of these can be very "gendered," they can still cater to different interests while also building spatial and fine motor skills.

  • My daughter loves playing pretend with her stuffed animals and dolls, playing with legos, and arts and crafts. She makes videos of herself building things out of legos. She also loves ice skating, so we've been getting her a pair of hockey skates each Christmas for the past couple of years. And then there is the new love of horses (books, model horses, stickers) so we're giving her a bunch of things in that genre for Christmas this year. Honestly the biggest thing Ive had issues with recently is how girls and girl friendships (and enemy-ships) are portrayed in cartoons she watches. There's a lot of nastiness and excluding girls who aren't in the group, and having friends and being stereotypically "nice" and "polite" always seems to be valued over achievement. (Aka maybe you did win, but at least *I* have friends.)

    • @Omdg - very interesting that friends and achievement are set up in opposition in girl-oriented cartoons, but not surprising. Women can encounter the same dilemma (achievement makes one un-likable) in the workforce. Very sad...

  • Oh wow! Thanks for linking to my old posts. Since I wrote those, Lego has made a deal with Disney and you can get sooo much princess Lego now. We have a few sets of it, and also of the fairy legos they brought out a few years ago. My kids like to build Lego cities, and they mix all the sets together in the cities. So there's a castle neighborhood, and a treehouse neighborhood, and a set of storefronts, and then the police station and fire station which technically belong to my husband... They're both doing the First Lego League this year, and it is fun watching them take their building skills and start to add on the engineering skills. **** The other thing I noticed on re-reading those posts is that we still have that Gobblers game, and both kids still like to play it.

    • @Cloud - very true that there are a ton of princess Lego options - we have several Frozen ones, as I come to think of it...

  • I still remember so fondly the chemistry kit I was given as a child, around eight years old. It came with a vial of phenolphthalein and I thought that was so amazing - both what it could be used for AND the "phth" letter combo. I also remember getting a microscope around that age as well. I don't have any girls but I just want to make a shout out for getting young girls chemistry and general science kits. It can be so powerful.

    • AND I must give a shoutout for the "Women of NASA" Lego set that just came out. It's really wonderful. I bought a set for myself. I let my older son help me put it together. While we were working on it, I told him, "wow, I wish I had had one of these when I was a kid." And he said, "well, now you do!" So sweet. I highly recommend it for any kid. It's been powerful for my sons to see the women figures associated with science icons.

  • My 7 year old son likes to embroider, but quickly gets frustrated with the size of my needle, etc... so am currently looking for children's needlework items or kits that aren't too frilly. I'm also planning to get him a melissa and Doug wooden loom because he loves to weave. He also wants a Nerf gun that's as big as he is to add to his already large arsenal, so I'm trying to offer a little counterprogramming-- he has both interests, and one is naturally fostered by our culture, so might as well give the other interests room to grow. Any suggestion on gender neutral needle crafts is welcome!

    • I found a couple of small cross-stitch kits aimed at kids by Bucilla and Darice at big box craft stores. They are very small projects and come with everything you need - frame, aida cloth, floss, needle of a reasonable size. They also make kits with the plastic canvas if you need something more sturdy for him to handle.

        • I forgot to mention that they didn't seem super gendered either - I bought one of an owl, a couple of holiday ones, and maybe a penguin?

      • I echo the small cross stitch kits-I loved them at that age! If he's interested in knitting, I also remember my grandmother teaching me with a starter needle set and bulkier yarn to make myself scarves and hats.

        • @DVStudent- I took a cross-stitching class around age 10 that I also loved. Of course, now I'm sitting here looking at the cross-stitched stocking I started around THEN that I found, and brought to my office, in the hopes that it would nudge me to pick it up again. Not so much yet.

  • I bought my son a doll for xmas last year. I bought a boy one just because we were learning about body parts at the time. The only choices available in main stream shops for dolls clothing were pink and blue. I also bought a pram and carrier to match and they only came in pink. Anything in a different colour was 4 x the cost so we bought the pink one of course!

  • I'm so glad my dad (engineering prof) insisted on buying us just as many Legos and German building block sets as we had Barbies. I didn't have a clue until elementary school that girls were 'supposed' to play house instead of building blocks. We still did dance, and I, at least, spend my time not in the lab sewing clothes. The important part was that my parents encouraged all our pursuits, as long as we gave them a good faith effort.

  • I love this! I only have one kid (a toddler), but we're also trying to make sure his toys are diverse in other ways. So, books and toys that show different skin colors, types of families, physical abilities, etc. This is our first go-round with child-rearing, but it seems like a great way to start conversations and break down barriers on all sorts of topics is through play!

  • Oh this is a topic I can get really passionate about. I read the book "parenting beyond pink and blue" that discusses how to avoid gender stereotypes. I have two boys (5.5 and 4 months). Gender stereotyping starts so early, and it starts with CLOTHES! The "Strong Like Daddy" and "Mommy's little football star" onesies sent from my grandparents really irked me. We try to buy clothes that are not gendered (not necessarily gender neutral colors but clothes that don't have gendered statements on them). All that being said, I get really upset by how feminine little girls' clothing can be. Do 4 year old girls really need shirts that have an hourglass figure in the waist? The gender dynamic in our household is pretty evenly split. My husband works from home so he does a fair amount of the housework and is probably the primary parent because of his availability for school drop off and pickup. I think our son has benefited from this. Although our son is really into Hot Wheels cars, trains, dinosaurs, and rough play, he gets equal use out of his play kitchen, doll, and stuffed animals (with which he plays the father figure to a whole host of members, including Doggie, Bear, Little Bear, and Second Little Bear - very original names). I was very surprised by how gendered his life became when he started Kindergarten this fall. He started referring to certain activities as girl things (like the dance club at after-school) and boy things. We've been trying to convince him that there are not really separate boy and girl activities. But other kids on the playground obviously know better than old Mom and Dad! ;-)

    • @Erica S- I love that he has a bear named Little Bear and another named Second Little Bear. I mean, it makes sense, right?

    • And I forgot to include this little tidbit. My son asked for a kitchen for Christmas one year from my mom (his grandma). Then when she told my grandfather about it, he told her it was a bad idea because boys don't use kitchens. My lovely mother retorted "Well, Dad, if you had played with a kitchen when you were 4, maybe you'd be able to cook yourself dinner now that your 70." CLASSIC. This is also the grandfather that told me not to go to medical school because women should be nurses. >:-|

  • Any tips on dealing with childcare providers with very gendered expectations? Our (63 y/o) nanny is great for so many reasons, but one of the things that drives me crazy is that she really only encourages my little girl to play with dolls / dress up / kitchen and mostly reads the fairytales she’s brought. (And she brought us this giant doll house that I’m so tired of.) We have cars and blocks too, but she doesn’t encourage them. She says C. Just “likes” to play with the dolls etc more, but it’s pretty obvious to me that that’s what the nanny enjoys. I’ve mentioned that I’d love to see the blocks and cars get used more, and she just looks at me like “why?” Unfortunately, she also gets overly worked up about more direct feedback, and it always seems like I’m just picking a fight if we’re not discussing some pressing problem....

    • @Sara B - that is a tough one. I guess you can make sure you show how fun it is to play with blocks when you're caring for her. And maybe sign her up for classes your nanny can take her to that have less gendered play? Or encourage mixed gender playdates/play groups.