Spoiler alert: there isn’t such a thing.
Well, that’s not entirely true. We individually construct the lines in our minds, and we also influence our children to see the same lines. Marketing also influences both children and adults (both parents and non parents) by offering gender-separated areas in the toy store.
This concept got shared a while back by my friend Erin (but I couldn’t find a source I could credit it to, so I made my own):
Oh, so true.
I want to tell you a story. If we’re Facebook friends or you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, this is old news, but as a backstory to this post: I was on the ferry a few weeks ago with my family, and Kale was wearing this ridiculously cute headband with green cat ears. He made it with his babysitter the night before out of Rainbow Loom (which is a big hit these days around here). And a woman commented loud enough for me to hear that essentially (and I’m paraphrasing – I was so filled with rage I can’t fully remember what exact words she said), that it was inappropriate for my male child to wear green cat ears.
Here’s what I posted on Instagram, it sums it up well:
Rant: this is my son. Last night he had a blast with his babysitter making cat ears with rainbow loom. He saw the pattern in a book, asked to go and buy a headband and did with his own money, made them, and is now proudly wearing them. So, Judgy Mom on the ferry, you deserve a punch in the face for making a comment within ear shot of my son (that he didn't hear fortunately) related to the gender-appropriateness of my male child wearing them. They are EARS madam, GREEN ears, at that. Neither male nor female children have GREEN EARS and there isn't even a question of whether it is appropriate for my male child to wear them. These are creative, fun, imaginative, an indication of his ability to use the pincer grasp, and a demonstration of his love of patterns. You can think whatever you want in your head, but when you make public, misinformed, comments that might just tell my son that his creativity and confidence is misplaced, you deserve a punch in the face. I only hope you learn to be supportive without question when your two infant children, currently swathed heavily in pink, grow up and suggest they like trucks or want to learn to mountain bike or like to take apart engines. It doesn't matter what floats our children's boats, only that we as parent validate and celebrate.
And the science backs me up. Here’s just one study about children’s perceptions of particular toys. (There are hundreds, literally – just google “scholarly articles on gendered toys”). You have to pay to read the whole article I’m linking to, but you can “look inside” to get an idea of what it is about. The abstract reads (emphasis mine):
Young children construct understandings of gender during the preschool years. They accurately apply common gender stereotypes to toys by the time they are three and readily predict their parentsâ€™ opinions about gender-typical and cross-gender play. This study involved 3- and 5-year-old children in identifying â€œgirl toysâ€ and â€œboy toysâ€. It also asked them to predict their parentsâ€™ reactions to their choices of gender-specific toys. These childrenâ€™s parents were surveyed in an effort to describe their preferences about gender-specific toys and behaviours. Responses indicated that, in spite of evidence that many of these parents reject common gender stereotypes, their children predicted parents would consistently apply these stereotypes as reflected by their approval or disapproval of childrenâ€™s choices to play with gender stereotyped or cross-gender toys. The mis-match between parentsâ€™ self-described beliefs and childrenâ€™s perceptions of the messages they have received about genderized play are discussed.
Kale has two current passions: Minecraft and Rainbow Loom. This is what my rational mind says to me about these two playthings: “I’m not very interested in Minecraft, I have a hard time understanding the point and I don’t like the pixelated graphics” and “I like looming with Kale, I like the physical use of my hands to create something“.
But what if it is because, subliminally at the very least, I think video games are for boys and crafts are for girls? There is no summary or conclusion with something definitive for this post. I still really don’t know. How much of Kale’s perceptions has been led by me or Ross? All I can do is remind myself:
My job as a parent is to validate and celebrate, not dictate.
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Interested in reading more? I was never that thoughtful about this topic, but have been reading quite a bit since Kale started telling me his preferences and wants since he was about 2 or 3. There is lots written about the topic, but here’s three links to get you started:
Elizabeth Sweet’s piece from this past December about how more than ever, toys are marketed in a gendered way. Dr. Sweet has written about this quite a bit, including this other great think piece in the New York Times in 2012. She’s a post doctoral scholar from the University of California at Davis. You can also follow her on Twitter.
The NAEYC – the National Association for the Education of Young Children has a Q&A with Judith Elaine Blakemore, a professor of psychology and the associate dean of Arts and Sciences for Faculty Development at Indiana Universityâˆ’Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her primary research is the development of gender roles. There are a few good links on that piece, though some of them don’t work and don’t appear to have been updated.
In the UK, there is a parent-led group called “Let Toys Be Toys”, and they focus on putting pressure on retailers to stop “colour coding” the toy aisles. They share great articles on Twitter, and their website has quite a few resources.