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Even without batteries, toys talk to your kids. Know what messages they’re sending.

January 13, 2011 – 5:45 AM

By Katie Culver

You may have such a haul of new toys in your home right now that you have vowed not to purchase another (ever!). But chances are, you will.

Like it or not, playthings can create and maintain gender stereotypes. Yet as a parent you want to create a balanced environment in which children’s creativity and talent can thrive. How can you do this? What messages are toys giving our children?

Firstly, give yourself some credit for supporting play because it IS important. This is how our children problem solve, think, learn, figure out who they are and how they can relate to others. Recent stories have pointed out the value of play.

Here are a few things to notice and think about:

—  Blue for boys; pink for girls: It may seem obvious, but the gender-coded gifts we give infants help shape what feels comfortable. Boys get sports gear – or clothes with sports logos – and girls get pre-princess pink wear. The message: To baby boys: You will DO and be good at a lot of things. To a baby girl: You need to look good.

— Raising two boys and a girl, I can attest that girls and boys prefer certain toys, but they will often play happily with many different types of toys — IF they have them available.  Keep a variety of toys in your house which nurture different skills, interests, perspectives and even cultures. Boys will play dress-up. Girls will play with dinosaurs. And they will play together if they have a broad selection of toys that appeal to both.

—  Often toys are gifts – out of our control. How to deter gift-givers from reinforcing gender stereotypes? When family members or friends ask for suggestions don’t be afraid to be very specific. Or challenge them to buy creative gifts that will interest a girl or a boy (or, gasp, both!).

—  Avoid toys that “do” too much. If the toy knows it all, your child won’t. Sticking to basics promotes imaginative play (a block can be a sweet treat or a bus). And buy sports equipment for girls as well as boys—early on!

Toys may shape children’s sense of self. But so do you. Be aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) messages you send. Wonderful, caring parents can fall victim to gender stereotypes, failing to offer toys and activities—even ideas—to kids that stray from the norm. Two examples:

·   At my son’s preschool, a mother spotted her son playing and remarked, that “His father would die if he saw him now. He hates when Johnnie plays in the kitchen.”

·   At the park, my son (age 4) took a ball from a much smaller little girl (What can I say? He’s a ball-hog!). I had him return it, but her mother brushed it off saying, “Oh, Cindy, let him play with the ball. You go play with your doll over there.”

Both instances illustrate missed opportunities to cultivate a new interest or skill and revealed how we may fuel fears and encourage or discourage our children even without fully realizing we are doing it.

  1. 4 Responses to “Even without batteries, toys talk to your kids. Know what messages they’re sending.”

  2. Well said! My son happens to be wearing his sister’s hand-me-down pink snowsuit with a brown fur hood today! He needed warmth and there it was. I think it’s often harder to stretch the gender stereotypes with boys – and this is a great reminder to stay conscious!

    By Erin on Jan 13, 2011

  3. Great reminders of how we can stimulate and nurture our children, no matter what the sex. It can be easy to fall into the same traps that have surrounded you all along. The older the girls get the more I realize the impact of what and how we say and do things mold their ideas of themselves. Constant work but well worth it. Thanks

    By kristen on Jan 13, 2011

  4. My four-year old grandson looks forward each Saturday to his ballet class. Sure, he’s there as solo male and is totally unaware that there are some who might not approve. Last week he danced the lead role of Prince in the school’s annual recital. He was fabulous, loved the applause and all the compliments and ended the day feeling really great about himself. He’s also looking forward to joining his Dad and two sisters at the forthcoming Monster Truck Show. What a lucky kid to have such enlightened and aware parents.

    By Sylvia Leeds on Jan 26, 2011

  5. I was browsing for those huge remote control flying shark and clownfishes and I stumbled upon your site. Thought I’d leave a note, just the same.. Cheers.

    By mumay on Oct 12, 2011

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