Gender & Toys: Does It Really Matter?
Author: Stef Daniel
Walk into any home with toddlers, and you will no doubt be able to tell whether the child is a boy or a girl by a quick peek into the playroom. Trucks, trains, planes, and baseballs will scream boy; while a room full of pink and frilly dolls and stuffed animals have little girl written all over it. Interestingly, toys have become as gender specific as clothes, and many parents are uncomfortable when their little boy chooses a doll over a truck or their little girl opts for cowboys over princesses. The truth is that it doesn't matter, and the reality of gender specific programming is not something a toddler knows; it is something that is learned from the parents.
What your toddler knows is that he or she enjoys doing certain activities. These activities, whether sorting, role-playing, or building - can be done equally well with toys that are pink or blue, and few children (unless prompted by siblings or adults) see toys as gender specific. In today's world where gender specific roles of men and women are becoming less of a factor in families, it is only natural that a little boy may choose to play with a doll. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with a girl pushing a toy lawnmower through the yard emulating her own mother who does the same.
Imaginative play is an integral part of childhood development. In a medical thesis by Dr. Carter Bruce, Cognitive Aspects of Sex-Role Development, clinical research proved that gender specific toys played a significant role in socialization that led to recognized principles of sex role development later in life. In other words, the mother or father who gasps or becomes uncomfortable upon seeing their little boy cook or play with dolls is simply passing on outdated schools of thought about what is acceptable for males and females. This same method of thinking would serve to stymie a male child as an artist or musician and, likewise, thwart a female from becoming a professional athlete. Although most parents do not gasp or gawk to intentionally divert their child's attention, many parents harbor secret anxieties about their child being perceived as 'normal', as well as fears of their child becoming or being seen as a 'homosexual.'
Let's face it, toddlers are just toddlers. They love to play with other children and often can spend lengthy amounts of time playing with simple toys using their imagination as a guide. While a parent may feel that pointing a child in a certain direction at a young age will heighten their interest, potential, or talent, chances are, if it isn't something they are passionate about as they get older, it will fall by the wayside regardless.
The other important consideration about gender specific toys is that toddlers need to be raised with the awareness that whether they are male or female, they can pursue anything of interest to them. When they approach pre-school, other children being schooled under gender specific thought patterns will no doubt call your son a sissy if he plays with dolls or other girls instead of the other boys. Similarly, girls are perceived as tomboys if they are good at sports and disinterested in bows, ribbons, and fancy dresses. But it doesn't really matter. The role of a parent is to remain supportive of our children, regardless of what they are passionate about and despite what we think they should be doing.
As parents, if we send a shameful message to our children, even one void of words - we are setting them up to feel insecure and ashamed of themselves. We are also taking away their opportunity to use their imagination, develop cognitively, and learn about the equality of the sexes.
Perhaps most importantly for parents to realize, is the fact that regardless of what kind of toy your son or daughter likes to play with, there is absolutely no sustenance to the thinking that allowing a boy to play with girl toys, or vice versa, causes any type of social or sexual damage later in life. In fact, there is more proof to the contrary. Your toddler is just a young child and is able to enjoy many venues and environments, seeing the sheer delight that each brings. The same is true for their toys. Rather than feeling awkward about this - you should feel proud and privileged to see the human spirit unrestrained by contemporary thinking.