Fostering creativity: gendered toys and stereotypes

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There is a lot of talk about how outdated gendered stereotypes are. I talk about it often.

We all know that our little girls aren’t destined to be homemakers alone, and that our little boys don’t have to be power hungry men stuck in corporate jobs fighting their way to the top. We all know that our kids can be whatever and whoever they want. We all know that it’s OK for little girls to dress up as construction workers and that it’s OK for little boys to dress up as fairies too. But for some reason when it comes to shopping for our kids or supplying our children with toys for creative play… we place a lot of blame on advertisers and toy manufacturers.

I don’t visit the toy section of department stores very often, but when I do I’m not surprised that they are always separated between girls toys and boys toys. The girls aisles are a sea of pink and sparkles and the boys aisles are solid walls of battleship grey and construction yellow. Sure, it leaves a lot to the imagination. But just shrugging our shoulders and saying, well what can you do? as we purchase mountains of colour coded gendered plastic, is that really good enough?

Toy manufacturers and their advertising gurus have decided that particular toys are most suitable for specific genders. They make all nurture toys (cribs, strollers, baby dolls, etc) in pink, making them quite hard for boys to love given our colour coded gendered stereotypes that are drilled into our children from the day that they are born. It makes me a little sad that if a little boy wants a stroller or a baby cradle to play with he doesn’t have many options that not pink and caked in glittery Disney Princess characters… unless of course his parents have the mega bucks to fork out for the organic, wooden toys that general come in more natural hues. And some do, of course, and that’s great for them but it’s not in the budget of every parent out there. Is it?

Let me just say this now. It is not the toy manufacturers who are responsible for the gendered stereotyping… as much as the big toy manufacturers say they are “for the kids” the reality is they are “for the profit.” Big business and all that, it’s really not surprising. So, if the toy manufacturers aren’t responsible, then who is?

We are. You and me and every other adult out there that has any kind of contact with children.

We are responsible.

We are the ones that buy the toys, after all. Aren’t we? We are the ones that select the toys our children are given (our own children, our nieces and nephews, our friends kids, our grandchildren, our neighbourhood kids). We are responsible. Just because the TV tells us that our little girls need dolls that poo and drink bottles and our little boys need toys that are dressed in military wear sporting large guns… doesn’t mean we need to actually go out and buy them. Do we?

Even toys that used to be uni-gender like Lego, now have more “girly” options, complete with full sets of pink and purple blocks and characters that bake, do hair and wear mini skirts. Peer pressure is sure to play a part when kids hit school age and are influenced by their friends and classmates, girls may be encouraged to think boys are gross and boys may start fake vomiting at the site of a baby doll. Whatever, that’s all par for the course in childhood. When our kids are really little we are the primary influence, we have the sole responsibility. We the adults.

Boys will be boys, sure, and girls will sometimes be boys too… and sometimes boys will be girls. And that’s all totally OK. Because at the end of the day kids are just kids, they are not two separate entities from different planets and there are heaps of toys (both in department stores and home made) that are really suitable for the creative play of kids in general. I’m not a fan of guns for kids, but if a little kid pretends that a stick is a gun and has a game of warfare in the backyard isn’t that a lot less insidious than having a full plastic arsenal at his/her fingertips?

All of these specific gendered toys do very little for fostering creativity. In the mind of a child a tissue box can be a car or a tank or an iron or a hat or a shoe or a glove or a baby bed…. but a pink plastic iron? Well, it’s probably always going to be a pink plastic iron… and my guess is it will end up at the bottom of the toy basket soon enough.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of this stuff in our kids lives, it’s probably unavoidable. We’ve managed to avoid *most* of it in our house so far. I’m not a fan of gendered toys for my kid not because I think there is something morbidly wrong with them, but that I don’t want to limit her options. For me the most important gift I can give my child is the exposure to choice, and to let her make up her own mind when she is old enough. To give her the tools to do that, I must offer her lots of options in experience and play and education. So that one day, she will have the facility to choose her own way.

There are lots of toys on the market that foster the creativity of our children’s minds. Some examples? Books, blocks, building toys, puzzles, wooden (or plastic) food sets, simple dolls, cars, trucks and trains, balls, art supplies, dress ups… we all know that really kids are happiest with a pot and pan and a wooden spoon, some cardboard boxes and whatever it is you are “playing” with. But sometimes it’s nice to buy gifts for our own children or to celebrate another little person in our life.

Fostering creativity is important and gendered stereotypes are totally unnecessary and it’s our responsibility to make the best choices we can for all the little people in our lives. Sometimes all it takes is to look at the colour coded aisles in the department stores a little differently, just see all of the toys as toys, not necessarily for girls or boys, but for children. There is a lot of crap out there, but there are also lots of options out there that should be celebrated.

What do you think?

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  • June 26, 2013 - 5:12 am

    Amy - I have a 3.5 ur old little girl who bounces between girly girl princess dress ups to construction worker like daddy and everything in between! Spot in Sash about not pigeonholing into gender stereotypes…I think even if someone tried with all of their might to do this said child would probably rebel at some point! Kids just need to play and have the opportunity to think and act freely!ReplyCancel

    • June 26, 2013 - 9:35 am

      Sash - The thing is I see so many kids who are pigeonholed. Social conditioning is such a powerful thing. And when it’s strict on gendered play and colours and behaviours that aren’t equal… it is terrible limiting. I agree, kids just need to play. πŸ™‚ReplyCancel

  • June 26, 2013 - 5:12 am

    Lila - I always love reading your thoughts on these issues, because it makes me feel less alone in thinking this way.
    I wrote a while ago about the Lego Friends range which I hope to never buy (obviously if Eve asks for them when she’s older I’ll break my veto) and how despite all the social media backlash Lego got for releasing that range the sales have outstripped supply. Which totally proves your point that it’s in the hands of consumers.

    We do our best to stick to non-plastic non-pink toys but the selection is very limited when you don’t have a lot of money or live near an Ikea. Just trying to find a gender neutral sturdy play kitchen has been an ordeal and I was conflicted enough about getting a kitchen in the first place.ReplyCancel

    • June 26, 2013 - 9:34 am

      Sash - I too am a bit conflicted about the massive kitchen fad that’s going around at the moment. I hate that so many of them are pink. And I hate that the alternative is always really ugly. I think most of them are ugly, let’s face it. I’m torn because I don’t know how I feel about it yet. I know that I would have loved it as a kid, but I also don’t know if I love the messsage that it sends (or the price!). What’s wrong with a bench top and an imagination? I don’t know. Then again, I’m torn because I know I would have thought it was awesome… part of me still does. Arrgh! Minefield!ReplyCancel

      • June 26, 2013 - 10:01 am

        Lila - My main reasoning is Eve always wants to bake with me and if she has her own oven I can let her “help” a little more safely. But apart from the Ikea one they are either way out of budget (which to be honest isn’t big) or pink and flimsy or full of plastic and sound effects!
        I feel the minefield is a little more negotiable with a kitchen being that men actually dominate the cooking professions. But if someone gave her an ironing board or an iron that would be straight in to the charity bin!ReplyCancel

  • June 26, 2013 - 5:48 am

    Julie - Gender plastic toys are my pet hate. Yes Tamika had a Barbie collection (still does) but she started this collection when she was an older child and bought a Barbie for each country we had visited. 19 years on it is still the same gendered plastic toys on offer. It is not just the toys, we went shopping and let Jarvis pick a new drink cup, he choose hot pink. Why do drink cups have to be either pink or blue?ReplyCancel

    • June 26, 2013 - 9:30 am

      Sash - I don’t know why! But they always are. Drives me nuts. But I often have to check myself and remember that pink is just a colour, it’s not a symbol of a patriarchal society. And then I just let go of my angst about it and remember that it’s just a colour. Girls can love pink and so can boys… it just annouys me that all girls toys seem to be caked in pink and have very little variety from the gaudy pink norm. And boys toys have no pink. Sigh. It’s just a colour and last time I checked colours were for everyone!ReplyCancel

  • June 26, 2013 - 7:19 am

    Karleigh - My little girl is a very “girly” girl which initially scared me as I am totally not!! When I was pregnant with her I vowed I would never dress my girls in all pink or my boys in all blue,but the reality is as she has grown up pink has become her favourite colour. And I’m ok with that (now) because she’s 4 and she’s making a choice and displaying her own individuality. She loves Barbies and fairies and Scooby Doo. It does annoy me that Scooby Doo is in the “boy” section (for what reason other than no one wears pink I can’t fathom) and I do cringe a little when she starts telling me something is a “boy’s toy” but hopefully as long as we don’t limit her options and let her make her own choices she’ll be fine. And, quite amazingly, her younger sister is completely opposite!! I really think kids know what they want as long as we give them the voice to tell us instead of shoving it down their throats. Great blog Sash!ReplyCancel

    • June 26, 2013 - 9:31 am

      Sash - Thanks Karleigh, I totally agree. Scooby Doo is for everyone. πŸ™‚ It’s amazing seeing how different two kids can be when raised in the same environment. So much of choice and preference is determined by personality, not gender. I think that’s such an important conversation that needs to be brought up far more often. Instead of just blanketing our kids in particular colours and expecting them to conform.ReplyCancel

  • June 26, 2013 - 7:55 am

    Lilybett - I am in a bit of a quandary about gendered toys. Dear Boy has developed a love of all things ‘transport’. One of his early words was car. Now it’s cars, buses, trucks, bikes, trains, trams, vans, diggers, tractors, planes, boats and most recently ‘utes’. I can’t tell if it’s a socially constructed preference or something he just likes and whether I should let him lead according to his preferences or whether I should be steering him towards more neutral play. I like him to be autonomous when he plays and to choose his own activities and library books. But I also want him to be imaginative and -as you said – a car is pretty much a car.

    I have other options available – blocks, handmade and hand-me-down dolls, open reign of the Tupperware cupboard and pots and pans – but he seems to gravitate to the trucks and trains, to his wooden trolley that he loads with trucks and trains and drives around the house.

    So I make sure he also has the female engines from the Thomas the Tank Engine collection – not just the token ‘pink’ engine but Mavis from the Quarry who hauls slate and Emily who is very smart and Isabella the Bus cause that’s his cousin’s name. But is it enough?ReplyCancel

    • June 26, 2013 - 9:27 am

      Sash - Of course it’s enough. I think the main thing is giving kids access to everything, which is exactly what you’re doing. So what if he chooses cars? That’s cool. He has a choice. Bo loves cars too, and it too is one of her favourite words. Choice I think is the big thing. Offer both, and let them decide what they want to play with/fall in love with etc. πŸ™‚ReplyCancel

  • June 26, 2013 - 9:05 am

    bron@babyspace - amen to this. I try to give my kiddos a range of toys and activities based on fun not on gender and I get a bit cranky to see toys split up in the store. pink lego is great but why is it ‘for girls’ instead of for everyone? sigh.
    having said that I have been shocked at how stereotypical some of my kids’ choices have been when it comes to play. take dolls and trucks: the kiddo and the lady both love dolls and tutus but she loves dolls so much more then he did. and the teen and the kiddo both fixated on transportation vehicles as soon as they could talk but the lady wouldn’t even know they exist. amazing.ReplyCancel

    • June 26, 2013 - 9:26 am

      Sash - it is interesting isn’t it Bron. I think a lot comes down to the childs individual personality more than the gender. Bo loves cars, one of her first words was car and she drives little cars around the house making the noises and everything. But she loves dolls more. I think it’s just who she is. And I’m 100% cool with that. πŸ™‚ReplyCancel

  • June 26, 2013 - 11:26 am

    Jess - I noticed this with big w’s catalogue actually being colour coded!!!
    We wanted to get Logan a play kitchen but you’re right unless you have the mega bucks we were looking at lots of pink. Thankfully I found a site selling a brown one which fits into our house a lot better!
    I plan on getting Logan toys that he wants but I do wish pink wasn’t so overpowering. I’m going to buy him a doll but he is so disinterested in most toys that we’re going to wait.ReplyCancel

  • June 28, 2013 - 9:45 am

    erica @ expatria, baby - I really liked this post. I take a similar tact with regard to gendered toys.I try to avoid them as much as possible. My daughter has about as many cars and trains as she has dolls. And she likes gender neutral toys (puzzles, doctor sets) about as much as her girly toys.
    Growing up in Asia kind of throws an unique spin on the pepto pink situation. On one hand, we don’t really get that much exposure to the heavy handed marketing tactics that are so apparent for kids in the West. We don’t cruse the aisles of massive toy stores, or watch much TV, or buy branded cereals or whatever because they’re not as available here. My kid has no idea who the disney princesses are. That’s a bonus.
    BUT, there’s an attitude here about gender stereotypes that is so much stronger than it would be with my peer group at home. I regularly see / hear mothers at playgroup snatching a doll from their boy and scolding them for playing girl things, or asking if her boy would grow up “funny ” if he took dance classes. That enrages me, but I don’t tend to say anything (which is maybe a fault. I’m not sure yet. Cultural imperialism etc.)

    And we are fortunate that we can buy her more gender neutral wooden toys, But that doesn’t mean that I can completely avoid the message that pink is for girls, and girls should be pretty and pink and sparkly. My daughter was recently given a massive pink doll house for her birthday and I was PISSED. At the extravagance, the pinkness, and the inappropriateness of the gift (it was super expensive and given by someone who is not that close to us).

    ANyway, I’m not too sure how to talk about these issues with y daughter. No idea of the talking points, or standard lines to use whenever sparkle pink gets foisted upon her. Have you figured that out yet?ReplyCancel

    • June 30, 2013 - 6:45 pm

      Sash - I agree with you. Gendered stereotypes are very different in Indo, and I don’t envy you having to watch that. I found it very, very difficult. Even just comments about what my daughter would be/could be when she was an infant by well meaning family and locals in the village… were so gendered and sexist and often derogatory, without meaning to be at all. It’s just a cultural difference.

      As for how to talk about this with Bo? I don’t know yet. It’s definitely something that I’m going to have to have a serious think about because these conversations are not far off… do let me know if you come up with a plan! πŸ™‚ReplyCancel

  • June 28, 2013 - 11:42 am

    Sarah - Chad and I were just talking about this the other day. We were looking for Lucy as new bouncer seat and we passed the little kitchens. He said, “I wanted a kitchen my entire childhood!” I asked him why he never got one. He said, “They were for girls. My son will trucks like I did.” …. I felt sad for him. He was the only boy with four sisters. He had to be the most “boy” anyone could make their son in order to stand out and not be made fun of by his sisters and his parents who trained him to think that way. I said, “If we have a boy and he asks for a kitchen, he’ll get one. Not because he’s a boy and we’re enforcing gender neutral roles, but because it’s a kitchen Chad and who gives a damn about who bakes the cake if it tastes good?” I think I made my point.ReplyCancel

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