Do girls only have to play with dolls and boys with cars and trains? Just what does the research say on gender-typed toys and how does it affect the little ones? MH investigates.
WORDS DR NICOLA DAVIES
From the time our children are tiny babies, they are confronted with gender stereotypes. Boys get blue clothes, and girls get pink ones; a little girl’s room is decorated differently from a little boy’s room, and, of course, we choose specific types and colours of toys for girls and boys. Research has shown that by the time children are two years old, they already start showing a preference for toys stereotyped to their gender.
Pink is for Girls and Blue is for Boys
Psychologist and researcher Lisa Dinella says this is not an instinctive preference, but a learned one. In her research, she found that girls were happy to play with masculine toys like cars and trains – if they were pink.
According to author Jo Paoletti, the idea that pink is a girly colour while blue is a masculine one originated in the 1940s. Today, it is a generally accepted way of “branding” items to show which ones are meant for girls and which ones are meant for boys. Researchers Vanessa LoBue and Judy De Laoche studied children between the ages of seven months and five years old to see how this stereotype affects them. Children were given the option of choosing between pink and blue items. By the time they were two and a half years old, girls would select the pink items, while boys preferred the blue ones.
Different Kinds of Toys Stimulate Childhood Development in Different Ways
Professor Megan Fulcher says that toys targeting boys help with the development of large motor and spatial skills, while “girly” toys encourage fine motor and social skills.
Boys are encouraged to play with action-oriented toys, which often
involve an element of aggression or perceived danger. Conversely,
girls’ toys focus on looks and domesticity.
This difference could impact future preferences when they choose a career. Fulcher feels that gender-stereotyped toys may limit children because they are not exposed to the full range of available activities and choices.
The Dark Side of Gendered Toys
Many parents wonder what all the fuss is about. What is so bad about gendered toys? Researchers at the University of Derby say that strongly gendered toys may be perpetuating gender inequality. Children were interviewed about what they would do when they grew up, and very young children already showed gender-stereotyped ideas about their future careers. Boys were more likely to say they’d be pilots when they grew up, while girls were more likely to talk about becoming nurses. As children became teenagers, stereotyped ideas about professions and gender were still prevalent, even though the range of career choices was more realistic and varied.
Girls Lose Out
A look at the glamorous dolls on display in the toy aisles of any supermarket or toy shop raises another question: Do dolls promote unrealistic ideas about the importance of looks and weight? Dolls tend to have notably and unrealistically thin waists and the legs are longer in proportion to the body than is usually the case in reality. The National Eating Disorders Association found that 42 per cent of girls in their first three years of school thought they ought to be thinner, and more than half said they felt more confident when dieting. A survey conducted by the Girl Guides Association found that 87 per cent of girls thought looks were more important than ability in creating a good impression. A certain doll most little girls love, it seems, has a lot to answer for!
Boys are Also Limited
Gendered toys may also be bad for boys. The toys we usually see as being feminine stimulate greater complexity in play. An article in the Journal of Educational Psychology warns psychologists that boys may seem to underperform in play-based cognitive assessments, not because they aren’t capable of complex play, but because the toys to which they have been conditioned do not encourage it. In addition, there are concerns that stereotyping boys as being rough and action-oriented may disadvantage quieter, more thoughtful boys who could suffer from social problems and self-esteem issues because they don’t fit the mould.
Are Girls and Boys Predisposed Towards Liking Certain Types of Play?
Curious though it may seem, researchers believe that boys and girls don’t have any natural preference for gendered toys. Their response is conditioned by our expectations, rather than being instinctive. A study by Carol Lynn Martin of Arizona State University found that when children were given a selection of gender-neutral toys, there were no significant indications that girls and boys have different preferences with respect to toys. But when the same toys were placed in boxes that were labelled as “Toys for boys” and “Toys for girls,” both girls and boys rated more highly the toys found in the boxes related to their gender.
Where Does this Leave Parents Who Want to Give Their Children the Best Possible Start?
To allow our children to develop well-rounded skills, permitting and even encouraging them to play with a wide variety of toys is recommended. Some parents worry that allowing children to play with toys that are clearly intended for the opposite gender may lead to gender confusion, but science says this simply isn’t true. Kids know whether they are boys or girls at an early age.
Realistically speaking, all boys are not going to grow up to be soldiers, but most boys will start a family at some time and have a share of household tasks. Why not let them play with mini-kitchenware or even baby dolls? By the same token, girls are increasingly likely to become doctors or scientists, rather than focussing on being home-makers to the exclusion of all else – and they will certainly drive cars.
Play should be fun. Kids should be able to choose whichever toys they prefer. If your daughter wants a pink fairy outfit, let her have it with pleasure, but if she falls in love with a toy truck, don’t discourage her. Equally, if a little boy starts playing with a doll, don’t tell him to leave it alone because it’s a girls’ toy. We have seen that children’s preferences for toys are moulded by their desire to “fit in” with expectations, but the less we enforce gendered expectations, the more leeway children have to develop and explore their own preferences, not only in childhood but also in adulthood.
Professor Blakemore of Purdue University says that strongly gendered toys are generally less supportive of optimal development than those that are neutral or somewhat masculine. When we choose toys for our children, we should be more concerned with choosing toys that promote development than with choosing “gender-appropriate” toys. Research suggests that the old-fashioned favourites, such as wooden blocks, are best. These toys are generally aimed at encouraging creative thinking, stimulating problem-solving, and promoting social interaction, more so than very gender-specific toys – and that is what really matters most.