Andrea Mara says when giving toys to children it’s best to avoid gender stereotyping options.
MY daughter and I were shopping for a birthday present recently — choosing something for her friend who’s turning nine.
“Can we get her the pink unicorn make-up brushes?” my daughter asked, sure her friend would love them. I picked them up but hesitated — less sure the friend’s mother would love them. Too grown-up? Too pink? Too girlie? Or just a bit of fun? I couldn’t decide.
Indeed, buying presents for children (particularly girls) can be a minefield, as gift-givers worry about bowing to gender stereotypes and offending recipients — not so much the children, but the parents of those children.
We heard recently that Keira Knightly doesn’t read fairy-tales such as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid for her daughter, because she doesn’t like the messages in them, and indeed, having recently read Rumpelstiltskin to my kids (announcing mid-story: “Obviously, she should have run a mile instead of marrying the bad king”), I can see where she’s coming from.
We’re viewing fairy-tales and children’s choices through 21st-century eyes, and asking valid questions. But where one parent may be perfectly happy with pink unicorn make-up brushes, another may not — so how do gift-buyers navigate this world, and more importantly, why does it matter?
I spoke to Jess Day of Let Toys Be Toys, a British campaign challenging gender stereotypes in childhood. “When marketing messages tell kids that certain play is only for certain people, it limits their opportunities to play, to learn, and to develop, but it also shapes their ideas about what they can do and be when they grow up,” she says.
It’s not just about the hands-on learning children may miss, if for example, girls don’t have the option to play with construction toys — it goes beyond that. “If you tell a child of two or three that boys and girls can’t do the same things, it’s hardly surprising if they grow up thinking men and women can’t do the same things. If we want to address the gender pay gap or the under representation of women in science and men in teaching, it’s too late to go: ‘Hey girls, science is cool’ at age 15. We need to be reassuring kids of three and four years that boys and girls can do the same things and make choices for themselves.”
Dr Lynsey O’Keeffe, whose PhD in developmental psychology is on the topic of gender stereotypes in children’s emotional expression, explains further.
“Children’s gender stereotyping is very strong during the early years. As they learn about gender categories they seek information that is congruent with the categories of male and female and are motivated to conform to gender-appropriate behaviours. They seek out toys that are deemed appropriate for their gender.”
Indeed, in studies where children are told a certain toy or movie is more suited to the one gender or the other, they are more likely to enjoy the toy or movie when they think it is more suited to their own gender. They perform better at games they believe are suited to their own gender, and there’s an impact on education too, says O’Keeffe.
“Early play activities are associated with later educational achievement — boys engage in spatial play more frequently than girls, for example, building blocks, while frequent numeracy play has been linked with higher liking of maths and confidence in maths ability at age 10. Toys and play in childhood can be used to foster positive attitudes towards mathematics and has the potential to increase female participation in science, technology, engineering and maths domains.”
Another issue with gender stereotypes is that they can influence how children interpret and judge other children’s behaviour — the boy who grows up believing pink is just for girls may, in turn, tease the classmate with the pink lunchbox.
“Possessing these gender schemas and processing information through these structures can be associated with restrictions in cognition,” says O’Keeffe. “Labelling and marketing toys as gender specific perpetuates gender stereotypes and reinforces the perceived need to conform to gender-appropriate roles in the early years.”
And stereotypes seem to trickle in at a very young age, no matter how hard we fight them. I saw a doctor’s set in our local toyshop last year, with a boy pictured on the box. Right beside it, was a nurse’s set, with a girl on the box. This reminded me of a conversation I had with my eldest when she was aged two or three. Her aunt is a doctor, and she was aware of that, but at some point, she became convinced that her aunt was a nurse. Nothing I said could change her mind. “Mans are doctors and girls are nurses,” she said to me.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any particular toy; dolls are great, cars are great, but it’s about giving options to children, and avoiding labels that hem them in.
How does the well-intentioned gift-buyer go about choosing presents for girls? Jess Day has some tips.
“Ideally, ask the parent or person who knows child best what they would like. Then you’re being properly led by the child’s interest and you’re giving the parent an opportunity to make sure the child is being offered a wide range. This is also an environmental issue — try to make sure the family gets things they’ll really use. It would be a shame if people felt unable to offer dolls or cars to children but nobody is saying to edit those out. If I can’t find out what the child likes, I tend to go for something that doesn’t fit a stereotyped expectation: books, art materials, something creative, board games, or jigsaw puzzles.”
In our case, I messaged the child’s mother to ask if her daughter would like pink-unicorn makeup brushes, and she replied to say she’d absolutely love them. And that’s what it comes down to — nobody is saying girls can’t have pink or girls can’t have toys that are seen as traditionally ‘female’, but everyone benefits if children are offered the widest range possible from a young age, and never made to feel their options are limited because of gender.