by Jessica Critcher
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. It’s so obvious, even little kids can figure it out. If you don’t believe boy toys and girl toys are marketed differently, check out the Gendered Advertising Remixer to see them hilariously juxtaposed together.
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.
Before this gets pointed out, yes, some children legitimately enjoy more “traditional” toys. 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.
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. 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.
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 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.