We’ve all walked down the aisles and seen gendered toys. Some of the stereotypes might not even register anymore. Girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks. Boys like blue, girls like pink. But how do the toys they play with affect your child’s psyche and development? The truth may surprise you.
Children figure out their gender as toddlers
When children reach the ages of 2 and 3, they become aware of their genders. Developmental psychologist often cite Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of gender identity development; which says children use that knowledge to identify others and categorize behavior as either typical of males or females. The media they consume and toys they play with during that discovery period, believe it or not, does make a difference.
Next: The history of toys plays right into stereotypes.
Gendered toys became popular around World War II
National Geographic reports that sociologist Elizabeth Sweet analyzed more than 7,300 toys in Sears catalogs from the 20th century. She found that gender-based toy ads from the 1920s-1950s pushed traditional roles. For example, kitchen sets got advertised to “little homemakers.” In 1925, about half the toys explicitly targeted either boys or girls. Unsurprisingly, many of the toys pitched ideas directly to parents. In 1945, near the end of World War II, catalogs marketed toys toward girls, specifically.
Next: Feminism played a role in changing that.
Both women and technology played a role in toy marketing
As the second-wave feminist movement gathered steam, the 1970s saw nearly zero gendered toys. Only 2% of toys in the 1975 Sears catalog targeted boys or girls specifically. Even the fraction of gender-specific toys mostly came in primary, gender-neutral colors like red, yellow, and blue.
However, the 1980s involved a resurgence in gender distinctions in goods and clothing for children. That likely followed the availability of ultrasound technology, Sweet explained. Since parents could learn the gender of their baby before birth, they prepared by buying toys that “fit” that gender.
Next: Today, some stores break out of the gender mold.
Some retailers gender toys, others do not
According to Parenting.com, Target stores now organize by category, like building sets and dolls. That theoretically creates a more neutral shopping experience. has begun organizing its toys by categories, like dolls and building sets, to create a gender neutral shopping experience for kids. Some experts do not know for sure if that helps.
“Pink and blue aren’t the problem, it’s the meaning people attach to those colors that become problematic,” said parenting expert and psychotherapist Katie Hurley. Parents believe that “Barbies are for girls, and Hot Wheels are for boys.” Kids, by contrast, do not really care until the media tells them they should.
Next: Even the way toys look default to “masculine” standards.
Pay attention to the predominant toy colors
A 2012 study by sociologist Carol Auster found that every, single toy sold by Disney falls becomes categorized by gender. Disney does cross-categorize all toys under both girls’ and boys’ sections, but at the time Auster conducted her study, only 91 out of 410 toys appeared on both. The ones that did came in “boy” colors like blue, green, red, and gray.
Auster posits this happens because girls enjoy more freedom in American society, at least in terms of individual expression. “We’ve really defined a much narrower role of what counts as masculinity,” Auster explained. “‘Tomboy’ can mean anything from neutral to great. ‘Sissy’ is not meant in a positive way among kids.” Children and parents alike can accentuate gender distinctions in toys. For that reason, retailers find it difficult to sell boys a pink and purple play set, for example.
Next: Is this behavior learned or ingrained?
Kids do not intrinsically understand the distinction
The New York Times reports that developmental psychologist Lauren Spinner studied the effect of showing 4- to 7-year-olds images of children playing with either stereotypical or counter-stereotypical toys.
One group saw pictures of girls playing with “girl toys” and boys playing with “boy toys,” and the other saw both genders playing with all of them. The children then saw a set of toys including a doll, a toy airplane, tool kit, and tea set. Researchers also asked who should play with which toy. The participants who saw the counter-stereotypical pictures responded that anyone could play with any toy. Conversely, the kids who saw stereotypical pictures fell more along traditional gender lines.
Next: Commercials really impact their choices, too.
How commercials market toys matters
Developmental psychologist Laura Zimmermann studied preschool children’s responses to toy commercials. She found that children respond more flexibly than in years past, in terms of whether boys or girls can play with certain toys. “Their behavior got much more stereotypical when they were asked their own preferences,” she said. Boys, in particular, remain much more reticent when asked if they liked any of the toys traditionally aimed at girls.
That said, ads themselves still reflect gender stereotypes.“My concerns are that children’s ads shape and reinforce stereotypes,” Zimmermann said. “They are obviously not working alone; we have wider societal influences at work, but ads are powerful.”
Next: Yes, it matters if your child sticks to “boy” or “girl” toys.
Which toys your child plays with can impact development
Toys help children to learn new skills and develop intellectually, and the type of toy does matter. Lisa Dinella, principal investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory told The Guardian that dolls and “pretend” games teach kids cognitive sequencing of events and early language skills. Building blocks like Lego and puzzles teach spatial skills. Those lay the foundation for math and logic skills, later in life. “Both genders lose out if we put kids on one track and they can’t explore,” Dinella explained.
Dolls also encourage empathy, according to Christia Spears Brown, author of “Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.” Additionally, gendered toys can limit childrens’ interests and even what careers they ultimately choose. “We know that these stereotypes that are being shaped and reinforced can be linked to a lot of different things, from educational and occupational goals to academic ability to social development,” Zimmerman explained. “It is really important to have children get this broad range of experiences.”
Next: Gendering toys can also affect who kids play with.
Your child should play with both girls and boys
Who children play with ranks as just as important as what. “Mixed gender play is really important, getting boys and girls to play with one another and recognize behavioral similarities,” Spinner said. “Children can overcome their anxieties about playing with other-gender children if you can get them to understand there are a lot of similarities in what they like to play with, rather than focusing on the gender of the child.”
Lori Day, author of “Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More,” told The Boston Globe that gendered toys have changed how children play. “Boys and girls stop playing together at a much younger age than was developmentally typical until this recent gender segmentation,” she explained. “The resulting rigidly stereotyped gender roles are unhealthy for both males and females, who are actually more alike than different.”
Next: Marketing toys affects not just children, but all of society.
Inequality markers begin in childhood — with toys
Sweet noted that gendered toys reinforce negative stereotypes. “This kind of marketing has normalized the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally and markedly different from one another, and this very idea lies at the core of many of our social processes of inequality.”
Many toys reinforce exaggerated adults’ ideas of what kids want or should want. In particular, a shift toward superheroes and princesses in toys does not prepare kids for their eventual lives, but for fantasy. The researcher calls those toys “adult ideas of what kids want … exaggerations of masculinity and femininity.”
Next: You can help your kids avoid these pitfalls.
Education can help kids avoid these problems
Toy choices, Sweet says, should come from kids’ personal interests, not their gender. “All toys are gender neutral,” added Brown. “What is not neutral is the way toys are marketed.”
Erin McNeill, founder and president of Media Literacy Now, advocates for integrating media literacy into the K-12 school curriculum. “Some parents won’t notice or be concerned about the gendering of products. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to gain the critical thinking skills to understand how and why gendered ads target them.”
Next: Do you want your children to grow up well-adjusted?
You can help your child by embracing their originality
Experts say you can raise well-rounded kids by embracing their individual interests, not just their gender expression. “We can’t teach kids to embrace differences if we stick them in a box and tell them what to play,” Hurley explained.”Target sent a clear message to consumers: Make your own choices; be you. That’s a solid message for little kids.”
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