A scientific guide to navigating the world of gendered toys without screwing up your kid

Ice cream carts aren’t the only vehicles girls can drive.
Ice cream carts aren’t the only vehicles girls can drive.
Image: Stuart Ramson/AP Images
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Developmental psychologists and parents worry about toys because toys matter.

“They are how children learn about themselves and the world around them,” said Christina Spears Brown, author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.

Every toy teaches something: Kitchen sets teach complex sequencing; dolls may teach nurturing and promote language development; and blocks teach spatial abilities and form the basic foundation of math.

But as parents know, few children play with that full range of skill-building toys. Despite our best intentions to avoid sexist stereotypes, girls often end up with a substantial doll collection and boys amass buckets of trucks. And changing these habits is easier said than done.

An obvious part of the problem is the toy industry, which seems hell-bent on drenching toy aisles in pink and blue. A less obvious part of the problem is us. By allowing our sons and daughters to fall into only one category of play, we ensure that they won’t develop a full range of the critical skills and attitudes they’ll need in life. Girls who play with dolls will develop nurturing and caring skills; boys who play with blocks will build math skills. But girls need math and boys need nurturing. Both sexes are likely to eventually hold jobs, manage money, become parents.

The solution is not to make every toy yellow: It’s to make sure every child can play with a broad range of toys. “There’s no such thing as a gender-neutral toy,” says Brown. “If it promotes a positive trait, every kid should have it,” she says.

The research

“Science confirms that toys lead to learning,” Lisa Dinella, an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University, told a White House conference on gender stereotypes in toys and media.

But there’s also plenty of science showing that boys and girls are playing with very different toys. In a recent study in Britain, researchers watched children, aged nine months to nearly three years old, playing in their nurseries and day cares with standard gendered infant and toddler toys. They wanted to see at what age kids start to pick gender-stereotyped toys, and whether that tendency becomes stronger as kids get older and more aware of their own gender.

They found it started early. Even at nine months, the girls picked dolls and pots, while the boys chose balls and trucks. Overall, boys were five times more likely to pick boy-gendered toys than girl ones, and girls showed a similar magnitude of preference for “girl” toys. (Though, notably, there were exceptions, with some boys very into kitchen gear, and some girls definitively preferring balls.)

“That indicates that there are innate preferences for particular types of objects,” said Brenda Todd, a senior lecturer in psychology at City University, and the lead author on the study.

Nature or nurture?

But it’s hard to know for sure how much of a child’s preference for a gendered toy is innate, and how much is socialization. Babies can’t explain their feeling about gender, and studies with infants and toddlers are notoriously difficult to conduct and tend to be quite small.

Even those nine-month-old children had been socialized, having been born into a world of gendered expectations—pink nurseries and cuddly toys, or blue booties and blankets. They observed others’ behavior and play, and even though their parents were not present for this study, they would act in ways that reflected what they saw at home.

“There may be some biological factors at play, but social factors are ultimately what drives the majority of the differences we see,” said Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of California, Davis.

In one study, Dinella looked at how color influenced kids’ toy choices. When the researchers presented kids with pink girl toys and blue boy toys, girls picked the pink ones and boys picked the blue ones. But when the researchers painted the boy toys pink, the girls played with them. “Pink gave girls permission to play with all toys,” she said.

“The so-called rules for toys are a social construct, but their strength and pervasiveness is on display in virtually every home,” she said.

Worse for boys

Those rules seem to be stronger for boys. The British study showed boys’ preference for gendered toys increasing with age, but decreasing for girls. In Dinella’s study on colors, pink gave the girls permission to play with trucks, but the boys did not play with blue dolls.

Under pressure from consumers, some companies have started to address their gender problem. In 2015 Target announced it would stop labeling toys for boys or for girls. A UK campaign called Let Toys Be Toys has lobbied retailers to stop categorizing toys and books for just one gender. Lego came under fire for its girl-focused Lego Friend sets, which featured hair salons and poodle parlors.

But the efforts feel a bit lopsided. “Why do we see so few efforts to provide nurturing toys for boys, the way we have seen recent efforts to encourage girls to play with math and science toys?” asked Dinella at the White House.

The four-step guide         

If the research feels inconclusive, what parents should do about it is not:

1) Diversify the toy box

As tempting as it might be to throw out all the princess dolls, parents should make sure all kids have access to as many types of toys as possible. If your kid loves dolls, great. But have the blocks and cars around for her too. If he is obsessive about diggers, fantastic. But leave some dolls for him too, and model how to play house.

“De-gendering toys is not about limitation, but rather about allowing the full range of toy types to be among the options that all kids get to choose from,” said Sweet.

Having a range of toys will also help kids develop a wider range of skills, and encourage children to more easily play with the opposite gender, says Dinella.

And whether or not the preference for gendered toys is innate, she argues, the point is that kids are able to learn different skills if we choose to teach them. “Even if there is a biological component underlying kids having different gender-based toy interests, it may not be a forever thing,” she said. You can teach your nurturing girl spatial abilities with blocks and you can teach your boy sequencing with a tea set.

But that’s only possible if those toys are around.

 2) Have a conversation

As children get older, they start to choose their own toys, and they may well choose very gendered ones.

When they make those choices, make sure they understand that there are armies of people at Disney and Lego and countless other companies trying to manipulate that choice. Point out that science kits for girls are about creating make-up, and not constructing levers. Or that Barbie’s physique makes us feel horribly about our comparatively “imperfect” bodies.

Kids should understand that society has put arbitrary rules around toys and that those rules don’t have to apply. Every kid should explore toys based on their interests and not on what someone has deemed appropriate.

3) Be flexible

There’s a mantra among parents that holds true with toys: “It’s all a stage.” My daughters were dressed in princess gear 24/7 for about two years, through New York City blizzards and Washington DC heat waves. And then it ended. Now neither would be caught dead in pink anything, and both refuse to wear dresses.

When kids are in a stage—princess, Lego, Star Wars—embrace that passion, but don’t do it at the cost of everything else. “If you pigeon-hole them at one age, you limit options as they get older,” says Brown.

I never encouraged my daughters to be princesses—and I also wasn’t particularly happy when half their wardrobes became obsolete. But these are the people they are becoming.

4) Go activist

Parents are in some ways limited by what toy manufacturers provide. For those who want to go further, they can start campaigns or join ones out there encouraging retailers to lighten up on pink, like Let Toys be Toys.

“It’s important for parents to put pressure on manufacturers for more options,” said Sweet, whose research shows that toys did not become gendered by color, into neat pink and blue aisles, until the 1940s. “Advocate for an environment that encourages gender-inclusive play.”

One can also encourage care-givers, schools and daycares to make sure boys can have tea parties and are offered baby dolls, and that girls can throw balls and march in the dinosaur parade.

If this seems like a tall order, consider the thinking and activism we put into food choices. We look at labels, and “vote with our forks,” making consumer choices based on what is healthy and aligns with our values. We can apply the same critical thinking to toys, games and books—the food for kids’ brains.