I ran into a friend recently who I hadn't seen since high school. After catching up on our lives, she wanted some advice. "Do you have any ideas on what I can send my gender non-conforming nephew for Christmas?" she asked. "I know he likes My Little Pony, but I'm not so sure I should give that to a boy."
Her comment after the question threw me for a nanosecond. But then I went back to the question and decided it was really a non-question. Because when it comes to gift buying for kids -- at Hanukkah, Christmas or birthdays -- I'm an advocate for giving a child something they really want. In other words, gifts are supposed to add to a child's happiness. And my emphasis here is on the stand-alone word "child's," with no gender-labeling modifiers.
So, regardless of her nephew's preference for playthings that may not fit the over-gender-stereotyped marketing of toys, my friend had answered her own question. Bottom line: He's a kid, and she knows what he likes. And whether or not he's gender non-conforming needn't be part of the equation. I also suggested she check in with her sister. Maybe he already has a dozen My Little Pony toys. Perhaps he's hoping Santa will bring him a scooter, a Barbie, Legos or some FurReal Friends this year.
Shopping for kids you don't see often can be daunting. So, whether you live in town or out of town, here are a few tips to take the pressure off you aunts, uncles, grandparents or family friends who aren't sure what to get a certain child this holiday season.
1. Ask the parents. This really is as easy as it sounds. Chances are parents know exactly what their child wants most. Just be prepared for the answer; it might not be what you expect.
My son grew up in the Midwest, and one of his favorite aunts lived in Phoenix. She'd call every year before Christmas and his birthday to find out what he wanted more than anything else.
"That would be the Barbie Pink Convertible," I told her the year he was three.
She hesitated. "Really?"
"No doubt about it," I said.
"Well then that's what I'm getting him!"
His uncle asked the same question the year Harry was eight and ended up putting an Easy-Bake Oven under the tree.
On the other hand, if you know your nephew is into Barbie or your granddaughter is obsessed with Star Wars and aren't sure how their parents feel about a toy that crosses stereotype boundaries, you'll find out by asking. If they're not okay with it, I suggest you send them a link to The Parents Project, get them a copy of Diane Ehrensaft's Gender Born, Gender Made and opt for my next tip.
2. Buy a gender-neutral toy. Toys shape the way a child sees the world, so it follows that stereotyping play limits a child's growth. There are plenty of gender-neutral toys that encourage the development of kids as whole people. So consider a toy that stimulates creativity, hands-on learning, teamwork, social skills, problem-solving or motor skills.
Gender-neutral toys empower. They give kids room to explore, broaden their view of what's possible for them, and defy the stereotypes linked to their assigned sex. In fact it's a custom on the last day of Kwanzaa to give a gift that's educational or artistic in nature. I think that's an awesome tradition worth spreading across all December holidays.
Here are some ideas for you in this important category: building toys, puzzles, board games, science kits, musical toys, stuffed animals. Challenge yourself to think beyond gender to a range of aptitudes.
3. Think world of books. You just can't go wrong with a gift of books. Reading stimulates the imagination and opens kids up to new worlds, ideas and understanding. In my opinion, every child deserves the treasure of a well-stocked library.
A child's collection of books creates memories of favorite characters and holds stories they can relate to and learn from. I heard my son's great aunt Sister Benet, a kindergarten teacher no longer with us, say years ago that books are the gifts that get opened over and over. Books were her default gift, and they've become mine, too. And because the price of books adds up quickly, any parent will appreciate your expanding their child's world with a gift of books.
You can do an Internet search for "best books for children by age," best books for children 2014" or "best books for children about gender identity." And your local bookseller will have some great ideas for you, too.
4. Beware the gendered marketing of toys. At most of the big toy stores, you'll find "boys'" toys and "girls'" toys divided by pink and blue aisles. So think about browsing outside of the blue and pink boxes of toy suitability for kids. Check out a local shop where toys are more likely to be grouped by play category. And the same caveat applies to online shopping, where many retailers separate toy searches by sex. Look for online stores that let you browse gift options simply by age group.
Ideally the toy conditioning by gender will soon be a thing of the past, right along with the tendency to label children for their gender expression or preferred choices of play.
May your holiday shopping for the youngest generation be as merry and bright as the smiles on happy children's faces.