It’s winter solstice time, and for my nieces and nephews, that means presents. Unfortunately, most mainstream toy stores are polarized between pink and blue, and the intent seems to be instilling and reinforcing traditional gender roles rather than encouraging play. If you haven’t heard the news, increasing evidence suggests that men’s and women’s brains aren’t all that different, so it’s about time we stopped cramming kids into tiny gender boxes. Yes, Target recently declared gender neutral toy aisles, and other retailers are following suit, but the problem isn’t going away any time soon.
I would like to offer a few strategies I’ve picked up for buying things for children– specifically for other people’s children, as I am not a parent and do not claim to be an expert.
Sometimes I worry that buying books all the time will hurt my chances of being the cool aunt. But then I remember that’s ridiculous, and high-five myself because books are the best. A Mighty Girl has tons of suggestions for books with positive female protagonists, from princesses who rescue themselves to Rosa Parks. You can even browse by genre and by the kid’s age. And you don’t have to stop at showing that girls can kick butt. The Achilles Effect suggests books with healthy images of masculinity. Both sites offer toy recommendations as well.
Back when I was on the fence about believing in Santa Claus, I remember going to one of my dad’s work parties. We all sat on Santa’s lap (which seems creepy in retrospect) and then we got a candy cane and a little toy. There was a huge pile of “boy” toys and “girl” toys. They obviously didn’t know anything about us other than the gender we presented, but that was apparently enough information to guess about what kinds of toys we would like. Which, aside from reinforcing the gender binary, comes across as kind of thoughtless. That’s not how you get to be the cool aunt.
I don’t remember exactly when I first recognized a difference in the way I was treated based on my gender. But by the time kids are old enough to understand holidays, it’s already been happening for a while. If you are in a position to give a gift to a child, you are being presented with an opportunity to offset this. Let Toys Be Toys is doing phenomenal work on this front.
If you don’t know what the kid is into, don’t default to gender stereotypes. I try to keep the toys as similar (or at least as gender neutral) as possible, especially when I’m giving toys to several children of different genders. For example, a couple years ago, the kids in my life got super hero masks and capes. Last year I kind of outdid myself and made them each a sock monkey (which I highly recommend if you have some free time and some funky socks with missing partners).
Truthfully, you don’t even have to go as far as gender neutral clothes. Just stay away from clothes with weird gender essentialist messaging. What do I mean by that?
Visit (or re-visit) a zoo or museum and do your holiday shopping at the gift shop. You probably don’t even have to pay admission– many places will let you access the gift shop straight away. This is slightly easier in big cities, but if your town doesn’t have a museum or National Park dedicated to something, you can find them online.
You never know what kind of passion you can ignite with a science experiment or a bit of history. As a kid I got a book-writing kit for Christmas. I wrote and illustrated a story about bugs from space who eat all of the popcorn on Earth. The finished product was bound in an actual hardcover book, and that sticks out in my mind as one of the things that helped me figure out I wanted to be a writer. In the long run, that means more to me than my Barbie dolls, even though I asked for those as well.
Before this gets pointed out, yes, some children legitimately enjoy more “traditional” things. I played with dolls and I even had an Easy Bake Oven, and I turned out alright (Okay, that’s debatable). But to be fair, I had the occasional microscope or birdhouse kit as well. Just because kids are tiny doesn’t mean they’re not complex individuals. Don’t sell them short by assuming they can be defined by their gender.
I don’t want to throw “girly” toys under the bus because A) that only serves to further devalue traditionally feminine activities and B) they can actually teach useful things like social skills and compassion. But the reason we’re caught in this pink vs. blue civil war might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If boys are shown cars and told that boys like cars, and all they get are cars, they’re more likely to like cars. I can’t believe I feel the need to type this, but kids can have interests that are unrelated to their gender.
I would love to see more boys playing with dolls and girls playing with trucks. But kids shouldn’t have to feel like they’re transgressing in order to do so. There is a wall between what is acceptable for girls and boys to play with, and de-emphasizing gender difference is how we begin to break it down.
People have told me I am overthinking this. And maybe they’re right. But there is extensive planning and thinking that goes into marketing children’s toys. Whether or not you believe the effects are harmful, you should know they are intentional. I try to be deliberate in my interactions with children if only to counter what the media tells them over and over.
Again, this advice isn’t really for parents, because I’m not a parent, and parents are already bombarded with advice from strangers. But as an aunt, Big Sister volunteer, friend of several people with kids, and frequent baby shower attendee, I am occasionally presented with opportunities to influence children. I like to think I make them count. If you’re ever unsure, ask yourself, “What am I telling this kid with this present?” Because even though they might not always show it, kids are paying attention.