Different toys for girls and boys? A wide range of play opportunities develops a wide range of interests.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was thrilled to find out I was having a daughter! I was also quite intentional about reducing gender stereotyping for Molly. I painted her room a pretty aqua blue. I bought a blue and red umbrella stroller, yellow onesies, and purchased exclusively gender neutral toys...and it was easy to do. Family and friends bought Molly frilly pink dresses and books about princesses…and that was ok too.
As she got older, she had a great mix of toys – yes, she had baby dolls but she also had a train set. I thought I had conquered the problem of gender-based toy selection!
When Molly was three years old, two things happened that made we wonder why I had bothered:
First, I vividly remember standing in the aisle of a major toy store in complete dismay. Every toy was either for a boy or a girl. I thought, “Has this always been the case?” I went to infant and toddler aisle and there were clearly gender neutral options but none to be found in the preschool toy section. I remembered that Molly wanted a camera and there were two models of the same camera toy—one blue and one pink! I bought the blue one and left the toy store in a sour mood!
Second, something happened to Molly. She fairly abruptly became interested in stereotypical feminine toys. One day, she brought me all her dinosaurs and said “Mommy, these toys do not belong in my room, they are boy toys.” She also started insisting that her toys needed to be the right color – “I want a pink bike! No, I can’t have a blue bike – that’s a boy bike”. I went back to store to exchange that blue camera for the pink model. I felt like I had lost the gender neutral toy battle!
What I did not know at the time was that there is solid science that shows that infants show equal preference for different types of toys, but during the toddler years children typically begin to show a strong preference for “gender-typical” toys. This finding has been repeatedly found across cultures and it is a product of both nature and nurture. Interestingly this preference starts to relax in girls when they get a little older but not in boys. This is likely due to the fact that adults tend encourage much more flexibility in play for girls compared to boys.
My second child was a boy and Molly’s baby toys got a great second use. When Will turned three, he wanted a pink shopping cart (even though we already had a great gender neutral shopping cart at home). I bought it for him, and he loves it! He loves to wear Molly’s old flower printed rain boots. Will also loves trucks and balls and anything that involves climbing and jumping. His wide range of play interests is consistent with the research that shows that children with opposite sex older siblings are more flexible in their toy choices then children with older same sex siblings.
I was surprised, however, by how much more pushback I got when encouraging his gender-variable (for lack of a better word) play, which makes me understand why boys may not become more flexible in the types of toys they play with after toddlerhood. I got a few eye rolls and snide comments at his birthday party when he unwrapped that pink stroller. It can be tricky when parents who have clear differences in opinions get together. As parents, we need to respect other parents’ opinions while also being confident in our own viewpoint. In my case, I laughed and said “This is what Will wanted and I’m glad he likes it!”
We should encourage our children to play with a wide range of toys. When faced with the challenge of explaining to your child if something is a “boy” or “girl” toy, try to divert the conversation to instead focus on how the toy will be exciting to play with. When boys play with dolls, they are practicing caretaking just like when girls do. When girls play with train sets, they are practicing engineering just like when boys do. When children have a wide range of play opportunities, they develop wide ranging interests...and, we have a much better understanding of what activities our children find most stimulating and engaging!
What does this all mean? 3 takeways for parents:
- During toddlerhood don’t be surprised if your child starts to show a preference for gender typical toys — this is very typical.
- Encourage children to play with a wide range of toys to develop different skills and interests.
- Be confident in your own viewpoint on what your child should play with, while also being respectful that other parents might feel differently.
Note: Want a better understanding about the nature and nurture of gender stereotypes? Pink Brain, Blue Brain, by Lise Eliot describes the science of sex differences in way that that is interesting and accessible.