When I was young, my sister and I would sit in the den for hours playing with dolls. Our Barbies were flight attendants, ballerinas and nurses, among other stereotypically female professions.
Of course this was (ahem) a couple years ago.
These days, kids don't take stereotypes sitting down. Take, for example, eighth grader McKenna Pope, who was so annoyed by the fact that Easy-Bake Ovens only have advertisements featuring girls and that they only come in purple and pink, that she started a petition calling for Hasbro to keep their gender stereotyping in check. (Hasbro will release a more gender-neutral version next year.)
Hasbro isn't the only toy company taking notice. We took a deeper look at this trend toward breaking gender norms: What other changes are afoot... and how much will this really matter for your child's future?
Companies Changing Their Approach
First, there was the Christmas 2012 Swedish Toys "R" Us catalog touting girls with Nerf guns and little boys playing with baby dolls. Then there was Harrods, London's famous department store, making headlines last year for its new gender-neutral toy department, which grouped toys by theme rather than by gender.
Perhaps taking a cue from overseas, Mattel is introducing a Barbie construction set and Lego is promoting a line of pastel construction toys. Construction toys aimed at girls represented about 20% of the toy construction category by the end of 2012, compared to just a handful of products the year before. With more dads buying toys for their kids than ever before, this shift makes sense, as some toy companies market products through the lens of what dads are more likely to buy.
There's evidence that the shift in tactics isn't just to appease feminists, either. In one study, girls spent more time playing with mechanical toys than any other kind, and "the toys that kept the girls' attention the longest were neutral stereotyped toys, followed by the male stereotyped toys and the female stereotyped toys." To wit, given the option, many girls don't even like "girly" toys.
"It most likely was a marketing thing to have a boys' and girls' aisle, and it may have been easier for people to shop that way," says Dr. Lawrence Balter, child psychologist and parenting expert. Even if stores are changing their methods with the ultimate goal of making money, he says, "arranging the store this way is more in line with what we're trying to teach kids, to make things gender neutral, so in the end, that's probably a good thing."
How Toys Shape Our Worldview
It's easy to buy toy kitchen utensils for girls and model airplanes for boys without another thought -- but there may be reasons not to.
Back to those Barbies in my childhood den: Might playing with Barbies when I was young have influenced my own career path, and my decision to become a writer and editor? (Barbie was an editor back in 1960.) According to research out of Washington and Lee, dressing Barbie up in uniforms for stereotypically male fields -- like as a firefighter or an astronaut -- could influence whether girls view themselves as capable of working in those industries.
Before seeing Barbie, most preschool girls in the study thought they couldn't do stereotypically masculine jobs. But after seeing Barbie in non-stereotypical outfits, the girls changed their tunes. "The girls watched this transformation of Barbie while we had conversations that did not center on careers at all," study author Emily Coyle said in a press release.
"For the most part, after we dressed the dolls, the girls said that they could do the jobs the outfits represented. Sometimes they would comment and say, 'I've never seen a girl do that before, but, yes, I could do that job when I grow up,' " Coyle explained.
What Should You Do, as a Parent?
Does this mean you need to always buy your daughter blue surgical scrubs, or your son Easy Bake Ovens to the exclusion of other toys? Not exactly.
The answer isn't as black-and-white as throwing out all the stereotypically gendered toys in your house and blaming them for gender inequality in our world. "More important than the toys your kid plays with are the things you do to create a narrative that influences your child's sense of self identity," says Dr. Balter.
To create a narrative, Dr. Balter suggests fostering your child's identity outside of playthings. "For girls," he explains, "this means pointing out all the women who are CEOs of large companies, Supreme Court justices, senators, governors."
He recommends complimenting attributes such as having your own mind, standing up for your beliefs, showing initiative, and having goals and ambitions. He suggests thinking about the messages you send in the chores you have kids perform around the house, and the classes they take at school. "The bigger question of gender equity in the workplace -- that's an enormous question, probably influenced a lot more by other factors than just what toys your kid plays with."
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Should you really fight with your 4-year-old daughter because she wants to be a ballerina when she grows up? Dr. Balter reminds us that kids' interests will change from year to year. "Kids, particularly preschoolers, are in a state of life where everything is magical, and they want to play pretend doing a lot of different things," he says. "It's usually temporary. It's a stage in development."
In other words, make your best effort to encourage the kinds of play and worldview that you think are important, but don't freak out if Aunt Janine buys your daughter a supermodel Barbie. The toys they play with aren't going to singlehandedly make or break your children's development.