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?