Yesterday, while discussing our society's continued attachment to gender stereotypes with a colleague, we started to discuss the play of young children. My colleague was talking about her grandson's "people" who consisted of action figures of all kinds and how he mixed and matched them to get the right team. I had a jarring insight -- girls don't play that way!! I had to stop and think about my own daughter and her "team" of toys. She never allowed Barbie to play with Polly Pocket or her other cadre of girl collectibles. American Girl dolls play with American Girl dolls; Pollies play with Pollies: and Barbie would NEVER go out of her comfort zone to play with other toys. It felt like we were creating another Toy Story movie as we allowed ourselves to indulge in the connections we were making. On the surface this all seems so harmless but dig a bit deeper and this pattern speaks to a larger issue-the biology and socialization of our girls and how society impacts their development.
You might ask "Who cares what toys our boys or girls are playing with and how they are playing?" Play is the lens into a child's world. As a psychologist who practiced play therapy for years, it was the way into a child's emotional, social and cognitive life even before the child had the language to express complex thoughts or feelings. Play provides us with knowledge about children we would otherwise not have access to, as adults.
Let's look at my colleague's grandson who has his "team" and my own son who had a diverse collection of "guys". What it sparked me to remember is that Spiderman played with the Power Rangers in my son's world and Ninja Turtles played with The Hulk when they needed him. He recreated battles and fights for justice and used the talents each figure had. There was never any talk of "they are different" "Hulk is bigger than the Turtles" "they don't belong with one another". Instead I witnessed many battles where my son teamed up the stronger "guys" to fight together for common good. At the end of a play scene, all the toys were dumped in the same storage box according to his favorites. They weren't stored in boxes according to "type". This is in contrast to my daughter and her friends who always played with either Barbies, Polly Pocket, American Girl or even the Groovy Girl. Never did the type of dolls converge. Barbie had her Barbie friends and Polly did not use Barbie's house, airplane or vehicles.
What significance does this difference in play have in the real world? From early on, boys recognize the value of a team and rewarded for putting people together that make sense without over analyzing or judging. I see it in a boy's creative play, their sports teams, at school and then later on in the working world. Boys and men can recognize the strengths a person might have without looking at erroneous factors such as "likeability" or "difference". If value is noted, there is no need to think about it much further.
Girls and women repeatedly get stuck with this concept. I am not saying that girls should be more like boys or vice versa but there are lessons to be learned from one another. Girls and women are more likely to build fences around their select groups. They quickly judge another girl or woman in relation to similarity to themselves or their group, ignoring the talent or strength that the individual can bring. It lends itself to the formation of homogenous cliques, exclusion and alienation. From my experience, it also can lead to bullying behavior, animosity and more importantly a loss of strength within the female community. Mean girl behavior at all ages is not powerful at all!
What I have seen in my work with teens this past year is that common ground is critical for girls in so many ways. I have witnessed girls from all backgrounds, socio economic levels, ages and beliefs come together for the same purpose. When it happens, it's powerful and they recognize this too. There is no easy answer but it is something we as adults should be paying attention to very carefully. What seems so innocent and harmless as Barbie playing only with her own Barbie friends in her beautiful townhouse could be the beginning development of so much more. I would like to begin the cross pollination and introduce the idea of Barbie playing with Polly Pocket. Who knows it could be the beginning of a beautiful, diverse friendship!