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Gender Appropriate Toys

Posted by Kristen on November 30, 2009 at 6:58 AM in Raising Boys
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IMG_0693a.gifMy friend Laura is quite the feminist. She has worked hard in her job and has gone straight to the top. When she was 30, she and her husband decided to have a child. She got pregnant and had a beautiful baby girl, Maddie. Laura always swore that she was going to do whatever it took to make sure that her daughter didn't become a "girly girl" or find herself "pigeon-holed" by being a girl.

To combat this, she decided that she would only buy trucks and cars for Maddie to play with. It seemed to work for a while but then one night Laura came into Maddie's room to check on her girl and found that Maddie had tucked her Tonka truck in beside her, taking care to make sure that the blanket was up nice and high so her dear truck wouldn't get cold. The next day Laura went out and bought Maddie a doll. Maddie kept playing with her trucks and cars but she was opened to a whole new world of being able to care and nurture her baby.

So when I took Ethan to preschool, I was faced with a similar situation. We have never really purchased a lot of toys for him so everything he plays with is a gift from someone else. He loves to play with cars and trucks and blocks. But when we got to his class, Ethan made a beeline directly for the baby dolls. He picked one up so tenderly and gave it a hug. I thought it was the sweetest thing. And excellent preparation for the new baby on the way. Then another little boy ran over and did the same thing. His mother, however, was not as pleased.

"Oh, no, Junior. That's for girls." She looked at the teacher apologetically and said , "and I can't seem to keep him out of his sister's play kitchen set. I try to tell him that the kitchen is for girls." Ethan's preschool teacher made a joke about how she wished the kitchen was for girls because her three grown sons can cook up a storm but her daughter can't even boil water.

I almost hyperventilated at the thought of a kitchen being only for girls. I instantly thought of my friend who told me that her 16 year old son still expects her to make him a snack when he comes home from school every day. When this friend told me that, I asked if he had anything wrong with his hands. I cannot even imagine any child asking me to make a snack at 16. I'm trying to figure out now exactly how much longer until Ethan is self-sufficient. I didn't bring it to this woman's attention that some of the most famous of chefs in the world are men and that if she played her cards right, she could have dinner on her table every night without ever having to lift a finger. I wondered if her daughter was stuck cleaning the bathrooms and the dishes while her son would eventually only have to take out the trash as a chore. I don't have a daughter, but I do know that my husband is messier than me in the bathroom. And my son is learning fast. As far as I am concerned, as soon as his little hand can operate a toilet brush, he has a new job.

So why are we so concerned about our sons wearing our shoes? If wearing women's shoes as a small child causes any sort of issue when a boy gets older, nearly every man in the world would now be a cross-dresser. I don't know of one person whose mom doesn't tell a story about how they used to try to walk in Mom's shoes when they were little. It doesn't seem to be as big a deal if our daughters are walking around in Dad's shoes. And why do our sons try on our shoes, our clothes and carry around our purses when they are little? Maybe because they are more colorful, shiny, fun and different from what they normally wear. Little brothers like to wear what their big sisters are wearing sometimes too. Ethan wears Dad's shoes too, but who wants to clomp around in those 10 pound boots when you can try to balance your foot on a shoe with a tiny little heel? Now that's a challenge. Let's be honest. For all those of us who have been forced to wear high heels for years--once the novelty wears off they are a pain in the calf.

By making a big deal out of what is proper for a boy and what is proper for a girl, we just might be stifling our children's willingness to explore and learn by trying new things. And let's be honest. It's either stilettos now or stilettos later.


Joshua writes...

Pigeon holing children one way or the other based on gender (avoiding "girly girls" or "girly boys") is wrong. I'm thankful for the increasing awareness of the twisted gender norms we've inherited.

When we stop pretending that genders are polar things with mutually exclusive properties, diversity can truly flourish.

Sarah writes...

Very well said.
My son is almost 4 and not long ago, he saw a play set he liked in the store. It's a pink microwave with a "timer" and "food". At first I balked, after all, it's pink! But I gave it a few seconds of thought and realized it would make a great Xmas present. It's now waiting in my closet for the big day.

Stan writes...

Excellent subject matter. Well written, fun, and informative article. I wish an entire campaign would develop around this issue.

kara writes...

My daughter slept with Thomas the Tank Engine. Or Percy. She'd have an imprint on her cheek when she woke up. She'd have two lines of trains. The sick ones and the healthy ones. She'd nurse them - but rarely played with the tracks. I'm on kid three and the most important thing has been to have a wide assortment of toys.

stan writes...

Excellent subject matter. Well written, fun, and informative article. I wish an entire campaign would develop around this issue.

Christine writes...

My children are all grown now, but almost 40 Years ago this was also an issue. We provided toys that included those for boys and girls. Trust me, your child will enjoy playing with all of them, but at a certain point, they will choose that which they prefer and enjoy most, according to their personality and interests. As for worry about boys choosing "girl" toys, allow me to recommend a wonderful book, "William's Doll" by Charlotte Zolowtow (I think). In this story, the parent kept insisting on buying little William macho boy toys. William preferred a doll of some sort. Grandma noticed and bought him his own baby doll. She told Dad, "you bought him__so he can practice being a man. I bought him the doll so he can practice being a father." It may be out of print, but perhaps your library may have it. It's worth the search.

Karen writes...

Bravo to your friend Laura for being a sensitive parent and a truth-seeking woman. This issue is not a problem for kids-- they already know what they like to play with! But when parents make a big deal out of it in either direction, then the *issues* begin.

My oldest daughter loved wooden trains, and she also had a little baby doll and bear that she liked to feed, tuck in, and carry everywhere with her. She went through a pink princess phase, and a maps and science phase, and both were equally fine with me. Now at 13 she is a well-rounded, feminine and assertive person who knows her mind and gets along with everyone.

I almost choked on my coffee when I read the words of the other mother at your son's preschool. The kitchen is only for girls? Yikes. What business is it of hers? Play is your child's work-- get out of his way.

Jenn writes...

I have one boy and one girl. Neither one fits the gender stereotype - my son's favorite toy when as a small child was a stuffed cat he would carry around and put down for naps while my daughter is partial to dirt and trains. I believe that kids are just kids and ALL toys that are age appropriate for one gender are also appropriate for the opposite gender. On a related note: my son's favorite color was pink (though I think it still is, he just won't admit it) until my FIL berated him for it - saying that only girls and sissy boys like pink. I was (still am!) so angry about that!!

Kevin writes...

Maddie sounds like a sick person who shouldn't be a mother.

Eleanor writes...

GREAT post!! When I was little, my sister and I listened to "Free to be You and Me" over and over. It was one of the first CDs I bought when my daughter was born. One of my favorite songs was about the boy who wanted a doll and his father wouldn't buy him one but his grandmother finally does. My kids didn't listen to it as much as I did, but it didn't matter. Dolls and kitchens and cars and trains and art supplies and any other kind of toy and form of expression possible have always been available in our house to our daughter and our son. My husband is a very tough and "manly" man who happens to do all the cooking in our house. My 9 year old son makes pancakes from scratch BY HIMSELF every Saturday morning (we help with the griddle part). Having "one of each," I do see that there are fundamental differences in the things they are interested in and the way they express themselves, but at least they've had the freedom to be themselves.

Jean writes...

My 5yo loves Hello Kitty and crashing his Hot Wheels. My ex and I both agreed from day one that we wouldn't dictate his likes and dislikes. We've even coached him in defending his opinions with more critical classmates by saying, "I don't care. I like it."

He has worn lavender Hello Kitty socks to Kindergarten, and even carried a pink and multicolored polka-dot lunch bag to school one day (I forgot to clean his Transformers lunch bag). He is a boy's boy, very much into fighting monsters and crashing cars.

I'm not worried about him. I'm more worried about other people trying to make him bend to peer pressure.

John writes...

Really, There should be no debate in this day and age.

Adults have so many more dimensions than social stereotypes and the world would be a coarse and uninteresting place if that weren't so.

I play house with my daughter and help take care of her tiny family, then follow her lead when she breaks out some race cars and drives them around the rug. I build Legos and play Star Wars with my son, then help him tuck in some dolls for their nap time.

If we want to live in a society of engaged, nurturing and compassionate, people then we must be all these things with our children.

So, when you see a Dad walking down the street wearing purple beads, a Mom wearing a Darth Vader mask, a boy carrying a swaddled baby doll and a girl clutching a purse stuffed with Speed Racer cars, stop and say hello.

We might let you play with us, but please don't forget to bring your imagination and your heart.

Cate writes...

Love this post! My four year old loves cars and rough-housing, but he also likes to wear mommy's shoes, take care of his baby doll (he has a new baby brother), play with his dollhouse people, and thinks pink would be a beautiful color for his room. I don't worry about him, I worry about how other less enlightened people might react to him.

Cindy Kwiatkowski writes...

Just another reason I love the Montessori method. Boys and girls are taught to set the table, clean up, wash dishes, and help with food prep. My daughter is in the toddler room with other 2 and 3-year-olds and there is no separation of activities. It's lovely to see the boys and girls sitting together at a table helping their teacher make apple crisp, boys dressing dolls for the weather, girls playing with geometry blocks.

alys writes...

I remember reading somewhere that before the 1950s pink was actually considered the proper color for boys, and blue for girls. I'm not sure what happened culturally to flip this, but I do think it is evidence that our cultural fixation on "blue for boys" and "pink for girls" is arbitrary and constructed.

I also remember my 6 year old sister wanting desperately to play with my brothers farm toys (he wouldn't share) but only getting "girl" toys (make-up, dolls, kitchen toys) as gifts. When I asked my mother why she didn't also buy these types of active toys for my sister, she said because they were for boys. I found this very frustrating, and at the time wasn't able to provide them with toys myself.

I know when I decide to have children I will make a variety of toys available to them.

Linda writes...

What’s wrong with being a girly-girl if that’s genuinely who that person is? I think the healthiest people are the ones who acknowledge and honor their various personality aspects, from the girly side to the tomboy side, and everything in between. We are complex creatures, and we need to honor the whole person in ourselves and in others.

Shane writes...

It's funny to here that men aren't allowed into the kitchen by some families. I learned to cook when I was about six, all the men in the family know how to cook. My mom's side of the family is military, my dad's construction and step dad's side are PG&E linemen. So no lack of aggressive type A personalities. For Thanks Giving I cooked the turkey, stuffing and casserole (former US Marine infantrymen) and my step dad baked cookies (former River rat in Vietnam). Gender stereotyping at best will stunt you child's life skills, at worst torment their spouse and children.

Amber writes...

I remember choosing a play kitchen over a dollhouse as a gift for my daughter because the play kitchen struck me as more gender neutral. These days, my son is the one who plays with it most, so you know where I fall on the play kitchen debate.

As for gender-specific toys, as my kids get older I think that it's less about me and my choices. I tried to be neutral with my firstborn, and she's the girliest girl going. My son has an older sister, so he definitely gets lots of chances to play with 'girl' toys, but even at 15 months he really loves playing with trucks. Honouring my children's choices, whatever they are, is my greater goal at this point.

Laura writes...

Kudos. Here's to being yourself, without regard for society's categories.

Carmen writes...

The weirdest and saddest thing I ever heard a parent tell their kid was in a shop I worked in, where a man took a toy off his daughter and said she couldn't have it, as it was for boys because it was made out of metal. It just seemed too bizarre to me, not only to pidgeonhole toys in general, but to make up weird reasons for it, too!

My 3yo boy loves his cars, lego and dragons, and lovingly bakes cake for all of them in his toy kitchen and tucks them up in bed at night. (He also helps me bake real cake in our real kitchen, and I'm looking forward to the day I can hand over to him completely...)

Manic Mommy writes...

When I bought HRH his first toy vacuum, I ordered a toy chainsaw as well - to shut my husband up. By the time Santa brought the Little Tikes kitchen, he'd chilled considerably.

Pam writes...

@Alys: Pink used to be considered the pastel version of red, so it was used for boys. At least that's what I read somewhere.

My four-year-old son loves those ads for the Easy Bake Oven and all those other things for baking and decorating cakes. Why shouldn't a boy like something mechanical that dispenses frosting! I do wish they would make those in primary colors, not because pink is just for girls, but because everything else we have is in those colors and we just like them better, even for a girl.

Becky writes...

I have 3 darling boys. One is very "boyish" and has a bad habit of saying that things are for girls or for boys (which we put a stop too). His twin brother on the other hand - loves the color pink, anything Hannah Montana or Cinderella and is very proud of his pink cinderella sunglasses with rhinestones! The funny thing is, the boyish one loves art and ice skating - no sports. The one who loves pink loves every sport involving a ball and is very talented at all of them - go figure! My oldest who is 11, still sleeps with his doll his grandmother gave him at age 2 because she passed away. He even took it to school for show and tell - honestly, I was worried that he would be teased and I tried to discourage it. He held fast on his decision and took it. His show and tell was successful and not a child made any comments. I'm sure there were more kids in the room that still sleep with some type of lovie. My 11 year old can also cook and sew - both he loves to do....he can also build an awesome rocket and configure a robotic lego contraption to do just about anything. I think hindering their outlets, limits their creativity....which limits how big they will see their world and realize what they are capable of doing with their life!

Doris writes...

I have three daughters. The oldest was obsessed with dinosaurs and insects and read all the time, and now manages a medical practice. The middle child loved her Barbies and play make up, was a straight A student, and is studying Security and Intelligence. The youngest was the only one who really liked her baby dolls, but she played all the sports and now wants to be an engineer. I raised my girls to be confident in their intelligence and they worked it out themselves who helps out cooking and who mows the lawn. Let the kids figure it out for themselves.

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