Lego in pink, Barbie in blue

Or would you like a Snow White costume for your son?

My friend’s little boy was happily vacuuming the lounge with his toy Hoover when Daddy strolled in, took one look at the contented, domestic scene before him (my own son was cheerfully ‘cooking’ us dinner in the play kitchen whilst dressed in his favourite Snow White costume) then grabbed the domestic appliance from his child’s chubby hands and thrust a plastic JCB in its place. As Kate and I gazed at her husband in shock, he muttered something about ‘no son of his playing with girlie toys’ before unashamedly (and apparently unaware of any irony) offering us a coffee.

Tes of major retailers specifically targeted for boys or girls oys that encourage gender stereotyping on the shelvThis incident took place a few years ago but stuck in my mind and I remembered it as the backlash about ‘gendered toys’ is gathering pace in the UK. Kate and her husband, James, are a modern couple; she works outside the home and he knows his way round both the kitchen and the washing machine. Yet, when it came down to it, even this modern, Newish man, balked at the idea of his son playing with what he perceived as girls’ toys.

Nowadays, the distinction between ‘girl’ toys and ‘boy’ toys is getting a little more blurred, and I do wonder whether James would have felt quite so strongly had the toy vacuum been the more masculine navy that is now starting to become available, rather than the Disney pink that characterised all domestic toys a few years ago (and still dominates today). Although several major retailers are starting to bow to public pressure (led by the campaign group Let Toys Be Toys) to stop labelling toys as girls’ or boys’, the Pink Lego Effect (recently, Lego started producing ‘girl’ versions of its popular construction toy that includes pink and pastel coloured bricks complete with curvy plastic ‘friends’ who bake, home-make, decorate, style hair and shop) is still a strong influence.

Gender Toys | Girls that play with boy toys do better in maths and scienceBut, the real issue is what impact ‘gendered toys’ have on children; if toy retailers make prams and science kits gender neutral, are we really going to create more female scientists and more stay at home dads? Or will the genes out, irrespective of what we encourage our kids to play with? Certainly there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that boys will often ‘masculinise’ any attempts to make them play with ‘feminine’ toys – by turning innocuous objects into guns, or by creating aggressive stories with dolls, whilst girls will often ‘feminise’ toys such as cars to give them nurturing characters and storylines. Does allowing them free reign lead to more opportunities for both genders, or just lead to gender confusion?

My own son’s predilection for wearing a Snow White costume whilst doing a spot of pretend cooking (both his favourite pre-school activities) did not seem to lead to any confusion; at the age of six, he is now well aware that he is a boy and that there are certain expectations associated with this identity (which exclude dresses but not cooking). My daughters were encouraged to play with traditional ‘boys’ toys (see box) as many psychologists feel that the emphasis that girls’ toys tend to have on physical appearance and attractiveness can lead to an over-emphasis on these attributes over other, more cerebral qualities. Both my daughters, now teenagers, are keen on maths and science subjects. Coincidence? Not according to the Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, who recently announced that girls’ toys risk putting girls off science and maths (as reported in The Daily Telegraph January 16th 2014).

Playing with opposite gender toys lead to more opportunities for both, boys and girls

Girls’ toys tend to be associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, whereas boys’ toys are more likely to be rated as aggressive, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous. The toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically categorized as masculine.

There does tend to be a feeling that ‘gendered toys’ disadvantage girls more than boys and certainly, when it is the girls whose playthings are characterised by cleaning, cooking, domestic chores and attention to beauty, it is easy to see why. It is argued by many that such toys send messages that limit the aspirations of girls, whilst boys’ toys with their emphasis on more intellectual, confidence-building or adventurous pursuits are less limiting. It has even been suggested that girls’ toys such as Barbie, Bratz and Monster High dolls, lead to such an emphasis on thinness and physical perfection, as to be contributing to eating disorders in girls at ever younger ages. Girls’ toys do have some advantages however; research suggests that they help develop emotional literacy and communication skills which boys may thus miss out on. Girls do still outperform boys in literacy and humanities (though boys outperform girls in maths and science).

As my experience with James and Kate shows, it is parents who are often reinforcing the stereotypes. One interesting study, fox example, showed that although little boys might sleep with teddy bears, parents are less likely to describe that as their favourite toy, whereas they would with their daughters.

Manufacturers and toy shops will continue to market toys that parents buy one way or another, so it is up to mums and dads to take the initiative when choosing playthings for their children. My view is to provide a mix of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toys for both genders and let them choose – something easier to achieve when you have different genders in your family anyway. It is probably a brave parent who buys Barbie, My Little Pony or a Disney Princess outfit specifically for their son, but there is always the possibility of a happy medium. And, if any little boy out there wants a Snow White costume, my son has finished with his now!

Dr Sandi Mann is the director of The MindTraining Clinic and specialises in the treatment of phobias, panic attacks and anxiety conditions. She is also author of ‘Surviving The Terrible Teens’ and ‘Dealing With Difficult Eaters’, both published by Crimson.

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