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Why should gender have any say in child’s play?

BY STEVE WATKINS

FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR

Our youngest daughter, who is 8, likes “boy stuff.”

She hasn’t worn a dress in three years, and then only under duress—and the promise that she could change into cargo shorts and a T–shirt at a cousin’s wedding as soon as her flower-girl duties were over.

When she was ring-bearer at another wedding two years ago, she wore a little suit and clip-on tie. She liked it so much, she planned to wear it again the first day of second grade.

What our youngest daughter doesn’t like is being asked—all too often—if she’s a boy or a girl. And if she’s a girl, how come she dresses like a boy? And how come she wants to play football or basketball with the boys at recess?

Sometimes the questions get her down. She pulls her baseball cap low on her forehead and pretends she doesn’t hear them rather than explain: yes, I’m a girl, I just like “boy” stuff.

But the questions don’t stop her from liking what she likes. When my wife took her and her older sister shopping for Halloween costumes, she blazed past everything pink and grabbed up a black and blue ninja outfit.

Her sister, who is usually all about fancy dresses and painted nails and silver jewelry, decided to be a vampire princess—although she’s been climbing a lot of trees lately, so who knows what’s next with her?

No one would claim that gender stereotypes aren’t still strongly entrenched in society, but things do seem to be more fluid these days. And not a minute too soon for our kids—and a lot of others who don’t want to be so rigidly “genderfied,” as one local parent put it.

Just recently, Harrods, the English department store, made news when it got rid of its traditional gender-based toy sections and reorganized everything in non-gender-specific theme areas.

The trend seems to have carried over to the U.S. as well. You’ll still find “Girls’ Toys” and “Boys’ Toys” sections at Toys R Us, but Target, Walmart and Kmart now organize their toys by gender-neutral categories such as “Learning Toys,” “Dress Up & Pretend Play,” “Action Figures” and “Dolls & Dollhouses.”

Still, the packaging on these items leaves no doubt about which toy is being marketed for which gender, with depictions of boys playing with “boy toys,” and girls with “girl toys.” Kmart has a “Shop by gender” option for its online customers, and pink in all the stores is still the dominant color for girls. For boys, it’s black and blue.

Clothes, for the most part, are still designed and sold separately in boys’ and girls’ sections of all those stores. Our youngest daughter insists on shopping in the boys section, not surprisingly. Her sister wouldn’t be caught dead there.

And like a growing number of parents, we let them decide, whether it’s about clothes or toys or both.

WHAT PARENTS ARE SAYING

“[Our daughter] doesn’t seem to care if things are ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys,’” said one of those parents, Stafford County’s Suzanne Logan. “She just knows what she likes and that is all that matters. Pretty awesome in my book. If we take those stereotypes away, that frees them to make the choices that are right for them. Sure makes me feel good.”

Former Fredericksburg resident Meghan Neville, who now lives on the Eastern Shore, is happy for her children to mix things up, gender-wise.

“My son makes guns out of green beans and his favorite color is pink,” she says. “One daughter is glitter and bling and the other is not. We all agree that baby dolls eating mud pies in Tonka trucks is the best way to play.”

Susan Park, local mother of a preschooler, feels the same.

“On some days [my daughter] likes to be a princess. On other days, she likes to be a doggie, a ballerina or a firefighter. They’re all OK with me.”

Another fan of leaving it up to the kids is Fredericksburg’s Ann Bernardi.

“My girls have always liked a mix of things,” she says, “including princesses, trains, super heroes, cars, trucks, dress-up (both genders), dolls, etc. I think Harrods has it right. And for the record, I don’t think any of it is crap. I think children learn and grow from all their play, and I used all of it as an opportunity to have meaningful discussion about gender roles, etc. As an adult female I am a wonderful mix of what we would classify as both the feminine and masculine. Why wouldn’t I be OK with that in my children?”

Still, some parents are bothered by what they see as persistent gender stereotyping, even in supposedly “gender neutral” toys such as Legos. They’re also bothered by, but accepting of, the ways their children may have bought into some of those stereotypes.

“My daughter was into Legos until she started paying attention to box covers,” said Wendy Gonaver, a college professor and former Fredericksburg resident. “Then she told me Legos were boy toys. She had a good point. All the kids on the themed boxes were boys. This surprised me since Lego only had one theme when I was a kid—primary color building blocks with a boy and a girl on the cover.”

Gonaver and her daughter visited Legoland and raided the loose Lego bins for “girl-colored” Legos—pink, purple and translucent. That seemed to solve the problem, but it left open the question about why Gonaver’s daughter was so insistent on those lavender Legos.

PINK VERSUS BLUE

According to University of Mary Washington psychology professor Chris Kilmartin, it’s nurture, not nature. He cited research showing that there’s nothing innate about a child’s “gendered” choices—such as preferring “girl colors” over “boy colors.”

“Gendered toy preference begins to develop around age 4–5 and is one of the largest sex differences,” Kilmartin said. “No biological—i.e., hormonal—events can explain it, so it appears to be wholly socialization.”

There is no difference between girls and boys in toy selection when they’re infants, according to Kilmartin, and by the time they’re 5, girls are still 50/50 in their gendered toy preferences. Five-year-old boys, on the other hand, will only play with “girl toys” 10 percent of the time. Kilmartin said it may have something to do with how sensitive children are, even as infants, to their parents’ expressions of disgust.

“Even if parents intellectually believe it’s OK for their boys to play with dolls,” he said, “they may be giving very different nonverbal signals that will influence their kids.”

The authors of the book “The Truth About Girls and Boys” cite a study in which researchers painted a tea set purple and put spikes on it. They took a toy gun and painted it pink, with glitter. Children in the study overwhelmingly labeled the gun a “girl toy.” But the purple tea set, they said, was for boys.

Bryanne Salazar of Stafford County thinks all these socialized gender stereotypes can be harder on boys than they are on girls.

“One of my sons loved Easy Bake Ovens as a youngster but grew out of that around 8,” she said. “Both boys seem highly genderfied and afraid of appearing feminine.”

Deborah Tolman, a psychology professor who specializes in gender issues at the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York, says boys have reason to worry about such things, since they’re more likely to get hassled for playing with dolls or wearing “girl colors” than girls are for playing with cars or doing other stereotypically boy things. In an interview posted online by CNN, Tolman talked about the risk to boys of being considered “gay.”

“If kids are coming into social situations with more constrained ideas about what boys and girls should be from playing, you can see how that would contribute to the negative reinforcement of ideas about identity and sexuality,” Tolman told CNN.

The New York Times recently reported on how much easier it is for girls than boys to live in both gender worlds, citing a study from the academic journal Sex Roles that found that nearly 70 percent of baby boomer women and 77 percent of Gen–X women said they had been tomboys when they were younger. It almost never goes the other way, however, according to the Times.

“Girls gain status by moving into ‘boy’ space,” the Times’ experts concluded, “while boys are tainted by the slightest whiff of femininity.”

ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE

Mary Washington College graduate Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, an art history professor at the University of Vermont, thinks parents need to take an active role in helping their children—boys as well as girls—resist the stereotypes. She says her son and daughter are drawn in opposite, and unconventional, directions in their preferences, and she’s all for it. But it can be hard, especially when they’re around other children who have fixed ideas about what is gender-appropriate.

“[My daughter] does not do dolls or princesses or any of that [stuff],” Di Dio says. “By her choice. She also will not wear dresses. [My son’s] closest friends are still girls, and my daughter’s are boys. I’ve always tried to dissuade any gender connotations about colors, toys or games with both children, but it is not easy once they are in school. I feel like I’m constantly battling the gender stereotypes.”

Di Dio says she’s discovered a host of websites that advocate for gender-neutral clothes and toys and urge acceptance of children who cross gender lines. She points to myprincessboy.com, pinkisfor boys.wordpress.com, and pigtail pals.com as some of the better sites interested parents may want to check out. UMW’s Kilmartin says this trend in “gender non-conformity” is a helpful, and necessary, development in our post-industrial world.

“Gender is less and less an organizing principle in society,” he says. “There is very little that men can do that women can’t, and vice versa, except for reproduction. Improved gender flexibility in toy preferences and children’s play is a reflection of this.”

Not that boys are going to be giving up their Transformers any time soon. And a friend who does seasonal work as a department store Santa says Barbies are still the No. 1 most requested item for girls. Still, as Kilmartin said, and as plenty of parents have noticed, things do seem to be changing.

Our two youngest daughters recently discovered a cache of Barbies that once belonged to their older sisters, who are grown. Both of the older girls were great Barbie fans, and very much into dressing up, Disney princesses and “My Little Pony.”

I used to worry about them being so exclusively into “girl stuff” when they were little, despite my efforts to encourage them in other directions as well.

Then one day I went into their bedroom and discovered they had pulled the heads off all their Barbies. I’m still not entirely sure about this, but it did seem to be a step in the right direction.

Steve Watkins is an award-winning author, yoga teacher and professor emeritus of English at the University of Mary Washington. His website is stevewatkinsbooks.com.

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