Gender Specific Toys and Their Effects on Kids
A debate was reignited by LEGO a few months ago when they put out a new line of toys marketed for girls – pastels bricks, curvy LEGO people, and beauty salons. From those petitioning to end this type of negatively perceived stereotyping through toys, including parents who are even attempting to raise their children “gender neutral”, to parents who really prefer to surround their girls with all things pink and purple, the debate is on over the effects of gender directed toys.
My initial reaction is a cringe, based in part on my own childhood as a self-proclaimed tree-climber, fort builder, and athlete, as well as my overwhelming desire that my own daughter grows up to see no obstacles based on her gender. However, I can’t help but put those thoughts in perspective with the words I read in Michael Gurian’s book The Wonder of Boys. I went back to the pages I had read in my never-ending quest to become an effective mother of 3 sons with a new perspective on gender directed toys and how those might affect my daughter.
The Debate Over Gender Directed Toys
Opponents of the pastel building blocks say that these types of marketing strategies stereotype girls as less inclined or able to build skyscrapers, bridges, and vast architectural expanses. They say that girls are just as equipped to build with traditional building sets and we should encourage them to do that rather than to teach them that their best creations will be those revolving around pedicures and shopping malls. In an equal-opportunity world I want this to be true, as well. I bought my daughter blocks and trucks, and purchased dolls for my young boys (neither of which seemed to make tremendous impacts on their toy preferences – they still gravitated toward more gender traditional toys). However, what if we look past the hype and see that as much as we might want our children to feel equally inclined and capable, biology still has the first word?
Gurian wrote in The Wonder of Boys about the undeniable presence of testosterone in males (with rare exceptions to biological changes and fluctuations). Because of increased levels of testosterone in the brain, there are several differences between boys and girls. The results of neurological studies show that the structural differences mean there tends to be increased levels of focus in male brains when it comes to spatial relationships and activities, which is why our little boys tend to be likely to want to manipulate blocks and create masterpieces rivaling the pyramids.
Boys are often much more single task oriented, writes Gurian, and have been shown in scientific studies to be less able to multi-task when compared with their female counterparts. Those little boys in our lives are hardwired to prefer space to accomplish physical tasks, even just playing games like basketball or baseball, as they use their biological gifts to be able to take on the challenges of moving objects in spatial environments. Girls, on the other hand, are often more drawn to games that require verbal skills such as imaginary community roles (playing house, store, etc.).
Toys that are marketed towards one gender or another might actually be marketed towards something the brain knew first – boys and girls are different. Instead of trying to do away with those differences and ignore the beautiful hard-wiring that exists already, it is time to respect the difference and teach our children to respect them as well.
Will pink princesses create passive girls?
My daughter played with dolls, loved purple, and had a tea party themed birthday bash. It was my job to make sure that her toys, books, and media access were respectful of all people, including her own butterfly-sparkly-clothing-loving preschool self. She is now majoring in Biology, helps with a robotics lab, and prefers jeans to dresses any day. Her toys didn’t determine her self-image or preconceived ideas about what she could or couldn’t do based on her gender – if I thought they did, I wouldn’t be giving her enough credit (and I would have been spending too much money on bad toys). Her interactions with the world in a loving, respectful, and guided way helped make sure that she knew she could love being a princess and still fight dragons.
We can’t very well criticize LEGO for marketing to genders when we as adults create magazine covers, television shows, and home décor geared toward specific genders. Biology does have the first word, but as parents we can help have so many more words after that which will affect how our children respect their own biological foundations. We can choose to buy our children toys that only reflect their genders, or we can choose to buy toys that reflect our children’s interests. Instead of trying to make girls less feminine by creating “Princess Free Zones”, let’s teach them that princesses and princes can rule the world together, each with their own unique contributions.