Many children are introduced to exciting new interests and ideas through the toys, books, and games they receive for Christmas. It’s also a time when parents can, often unwittingly, pass on sexist ideas to children by buying toys based on gender stereotypes.
The number one consideration as parents is to give our children a happy Christmas, and for most of us that will include giving them presents we know they'll love. The fact is though, young children in particular will love almost anything that's given to them if it’s presented in a fun way.
Take toy cars for example. They’re not gender specific toys, but they’re usually marketed to boys. Little boys who develop a love of cars often do so because they're given them in the first place and have their interest reinforced through clothes with car motifs, seeing other boys play with them, and seeing only boys on toy car packaging, in advertisements, etc. There’s nothing wrong with a boy liking toy cars, the problem is that too many girls feel they’re not supposed to.
I remember my toddler daughter being awed by remote control cars at a (boy) friend’s birthday party. She asked for one for Christmas and it became a favorite toy of hers, but apart from me and her dad, no friend or relative ever bought her toy cars or car-covered clothes. Her birthday and Christmas cards were full of fairies, cupcakes, and kittens. Nobody ever approvingly called her a typical girl for liking cars, she didn’t see girls playing with vehicles on TV, and one day she told me she didn’t want anyone to know that she liked cars.
Gender stereotypes in childhood can have powerful long term effects. What begins as a childhood hobby can sometimes develop into a lifelong interest – one that some children will be turned away from because it's not typically coded for their respective gender.
If you’re buying gifts for a child this year, why not try to think outside of the pink and blue boxes? Despite what marketers may suggest, interests and gender are two completely different things. Here are a few suggestions.
According to a Unicef report, girls aged between five and 14 spend 40 percent more time on household chores than boys. Other studies show that even in families where male and female partners both work full-time, women still tend to take on more household responsibilities than men.
Children love to imitate the adults around them and enjoy home-themed gifts like play kitchens, vacuum cleaners, and tea sets, but these toys are most likely to be marketed and sold to parents of girls. Giving boys home-themed toys can help them get used to the idea that taking care of the house is everyone’s job.
For toddlers this little Roll-n-Pop Vacuum by Little Tikes is an ideal toy for "helping" to tidy up the house, while toys like this wooden tea set by Plan Toys give children the chance to play at making drinks, setting the table, doing the dishes, or simply enjoying a pretend tea party.
Not everyone grows up to be a parent, but there’s a good chance a boy will someday take on a caring role, whether it’s as a father, caregiver, or older sibling. Taking care of a baby doll gives him the chance to express his loving side and there are lots of other benefits to doll play, too.
Dolls can be a great way of helping prepare for the arrival of a new sibling. They also encourage communication, nurturing, and language skills and help develop social imagination. Dressing, brushing hair, and bathing a doll teaches children about body parts and hygiene and helps to develop fine motor skills.
Boys play with dolls and strollers in playgroups and nurseries – it’s fun and it’s natural. There’s no reason for dolls to be seen as just for girls.
It can be frustrating when searching for dolls to find that the vast majority of them are white-skinned and pink-clothed. This Basket of Babies set with six diverse cloth dolls makes a nice change from the norm. The dolls are soft and light with sleepsack-type outfits, hats, and a little basket to sleep in.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) toys are a great way to build skills such as spatial awareness, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Yet these toys are likely to be found in the section of the toy shop labeled or coded for boys.
You might find science kits aimed at girls in "the pink aisle," full of sparkle and cosmetics. But if girls are made to feel they need a separate pink glittery approach to science, doesn’t it tell them that the "real" science is for boys?
Science is for everyone, yet research shows that young children often have very clear ideas about suitable jobs for boys and girls; ideas that can be difficult to shake later on. Many see a connection between childhood conditioning and the fact that women make up a very small percentage of the STEM workforce. So get the girl(s) on your list that astronaut costume, the tool set, or the messy science kit and do your bit to encourage girls in STEM.
I bought my daughter this Primary Science Lab Kit a few years ago and she’s had a lot of use from it. It’s a great beginners set, with easy-to-grasp lab equipment and activity cards full of fun suggestions for ways kids can explore science.
If you want a fun hands-on way for children to learn about the principles of electronics, you could try Snap Circuits. There are a range of kits available from basic to complex with various upgrades. The Alternative Energy Kit from which kids can create solar and wind energy projects looks particularly interesting.
As well as being fun, arty activities like drawing, cutting, and threading beads aid the development of fine motor skills. Art is great for self-expression and communication, and helps build patience, concentration, and self-esteem.
In recent years though, arts and crafts sections of toy stores have become drenched in pink. Jewelry and fashion themes dominate and it’s girls who are pictured on the packaging.
Don’t let gendered marketing put you off buying arts and craft toys for boys. Search out the sewing, crafts, or art kits that aren’t obviously targeted at one gender, choose them for the children on your list and give the heavily gendered items a miss.
Craft kits like this Make a Teddy Bear Kit are great for children who love to create. Children learn about sewing and following instructions, plus they end up with a lovely new soft plush friend.
Bunchems are another absorbing imaginative craft for little ones – colorful balls that can be squished together to create pretty much anything. They are available in a variety of sets and can be used with instructions or in open-ended play.
Dress-up boxes are a great source of fun for children, but limitations are often unconsciously imposed. Girls are gifted sparkly princess dresses, whereas boys are expected to be into powerful characters like superheroes. Why is it that if a little boy plays at being an alien, a monster, or an animal it’s fine, but if he plays at being a girl it’s often taken as an indication of his future sexuality?
Costumes are often marketed by gender but surely in the world of pretend, girls can be Olaf and boys can be Elsa.
Girls and boys will enjoy playing with all kinds of costumes in all kinds of colors, let them try on anything for size, from career outfits through mythical beasts, to bright colors and sparkles.
This NASA Rocket Scientist Lab Coat can be used in a variety of play situations, great for any girl or boy who loves outer space, while little firefighters should enjoy this red Fire Chief Helmet with lights and siren sounds. There are lots of costumes around for Pokemon fans at the moment, such as these Pikachu, and Jigglypuff costumes, or maybe your little one would love to be a Ladybug.
UK research suggests that around one in five boys see reading as more for girls than boys. The cause is tied to “male gender identities which do not value learning and reading as a mark of success.” It follows that a stereotypical "books for boys" approach exacerbates the problem. If some books are just for boys, who are all the others for?
Publishers often assume that boys don’t want to read about girls, but many boys love books with girl protagonists. A good story is just that after all, and why should one half of the population not read about the other half? The hashtag #boysreadgirls, is a great place to check out recommendations for books with girl protagonists, for all children.
Young superhero fans will love "The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl." The recently rebooted series has been praised for its comedy as well as the empowering portrayal of the main character.
Pippi Longstocking is another great girl protagonist, very popular with readers between the ages of six and 10 or so. The hilarious escapades of the eccentric, subversive, yet good-hearted Pippi are likely to have adults chuckling away, too.
In recent years the toy industry has gone into gender specific toy marketing overdrive. In the past, toys were not so aggressively segregated. Many were aimed at all children, with few pink and blue versions of the same toy.
If we want girls and boys to respect each other and treat each other as equals, shouldn’t they be brought together, not pushed apart? Board games tend to be one of the less aggressively gendered types of toy. Why not buy something that boys and girls can play with together in the knowledge that they’re not so different from one another?
Labyrinth is a great board game for the whole family. Characters move around the labyrinth in search of items on the cards they've been dealt, but the walls move on every turn so players have to work out how best to move pieces to their advantage. There’s a long version and a shorter, easier version for younger players. Other classic board games that everyone can enjoy include Jenga, Pictionary and Connect 4.
It’s good for children to have a wide range of play experiences, because different toys foster different skills. Both boys and girls miss out when they are only presented with gender typical toys. Children learn a lot through play, including the notion of gender roles.
Gender specific toy marketing fuels gender inequality and undermines the progress of women's rights. When corporations sell our children gender stereotypes they're selling a future imbued with sexism. If you believe in gender equality, don’t buy toys for a child based solely on whether they're a boy or a girl.