With Rainbow Butterfly Unicorn Kitty on one side and Fart Ninja Bulbhead on the other, the gender divide was impossible to avoid at the North American International Toy Fair in New York in February.
Barbie light sirens seeking space with Gatling-style foam dart blowers at the Javits Center in Manhattan raised a question: have toys really progressed since the time of our grandparents? And how do the toys we play with shape the people we grow?
We struggled to answer these and other related questions in our last episode of the Life Kit podcast titled Parenting: Challenging Conversations, with the help of Sesame Workshop.
Toys become more sexual
Researcher Elizabeth Sweet has been studying toy catalogs and advertisements over time and finding that toys are actually more gendered than they were 50 years ago.
Rebecca Hains, a professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, has written a book about it: The problem of the princess: Let's guide our girls through the princess's obsession years.
The characters of Disney, she said, were more varied: there was Cinderella, of course, but also Pinocchio and Bambi. From 1989 The little Mermaid Hains said: "Disney has achieved profitability among girls". Enter the mastodon of the Disney Princess brand. In addition, marketers even mask gender-neutral toys, such as blocks of primary and pastel colors, in hopes of selling more games.
Diane Bondareff / AP
Even though several women were arguing over the presidency of the United States, and even though they were more aware of the specter of gender identity that we had never seen in our culture, "it is almost as if the children were subject to stereotypes. "have evolved elsewhere."
And these stereotypes can stay.
In a 2013 study of undergraduates, one-third identified themselves as "princesses". They give greater value to the physical attractiveness of a partner, are less likely to want to join the job market after college and are more likely to say that they want to marry a breadwinner . And when all the women had to solve puzzles, the "princesses" stopped faster.
This study does not prove that all girls who love tutus will become authorized smokers. But as play prepares children for life, boys and girls need big options, says Rosemarie Truglio, development psychologist and vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop.
"It's good for me to like pink and pretty things and frilly things, but that should not define who I am and should not define what I will be in the future," Truglio says. "Anyone who is individually defined does not make a person really interesting."
Here are our takeaways on how to handle toy problems.
1. The bans will turn against us – no pun intended.
You can certainly ban a toy that makes you feel uncomfortable, but consider this:
"I do not think prohibiting anything is the solution," says Truglio. She discovered this the hard way as a mother herself. At first "we had the rule: No [toy] firearms in our house, "she said, but she realized that all of her young son's friends were playing with them, usually in the hallway of their building.
Andrew Kelly / AP
The group games and the resulting friendship are so important to the children, Truglio said, that she decided to allow the toy pistol, subject to certain conditions. Also, if you say no, there is a good chance that the toy will become even more coveted, she says.
2. The way they play is more important than what they play with.
Lisa Dinella, professor of gender studies at Monmouth University and co-author of the aforementioned study on princesses, says Lisa Dinella. With a gun, "you can be really, really aggressive, or just shoot at targets." In the same way, a princess game can be only a question of beauty or a sophisticated plot.
Truglio says that one of the red flags is that there is no variety in a child's play. For example, if your child wants to play only with toy guns and the game is still aggressive, it could be a sign for you, as a parent, to intervene and find out what is really bothering him.
3. Parents can counter sexist messages.
Dinella says that children begin to learn gender stereotypes before they have no more diapers. "Between 18 months and 2 years old, it's the first time we start to see their consciousness."
They learn by looking at us. Hains cites studies that show that parents tend to spend more time holding baby girls and more time encouraging baby boys to crawl. Other studies show that when a toddler takes an overflow on the playing field, passers-by are more likely to give her hugs and sympathy if she is dressed in pink and white. encourage him to "walk on" when he wears blue.
"So it's very difficult to separate toy preferences from the gender socialization that's so insidious," said Hains.
Dinella has conducted several experiments on the influence of strong gender identity on children's toy choices. In one, she and her team painted a pile of toys in white. Without signs of color, boys and girls were attracted to neutral toys such as Play-Doh and Etch A Sketch.
In another experiment titled "Pink Gives Girls Permission", Dinella and her co-writers reversed the traditional color patterns: pink trucks and baby dolls in camouflage. She discovered that "it is more difficult for boys to play with girls and behave as girls than for girls to be able to venture into some of these heterosexual plays."
Stuart Ramson / AP
Dinella says that you can see this inequality in the harshness of our culture that is still attacking little boys who love princesses and bright things.
It's a shame, she says, because toys can teach important and sometimes unexpected techniques. The dolls prepare boys for future roles as fathers and help them to practice empathy. Playing tea can help children learn "cognitive sequencing of events: the beginning, the middle and the end of a task". In other words, a tea service can introduce one of the fundamentals of computer coding.
So, Dinella suggests that when buying toys, we strive to achieve a gender balance as well as its neutral. Try saying something like, "You already have four dolls, so why not … have a truck too?"
Or, "Can we have it in the white version so that all the kids, when they come home, can play with, instead of the pink version?"
4. Speak directly to your children and share your values around toys.
Dinella is also a mother and she has not banned toy guns either. But she lets her children know that she is not crazy about them. "I will never say," Hey, we have not played a lot with Nerf guns lately! Let's get them out! " "
In other cases, she says, you can be more direct. "You can say:" This dress up toy that was offered to you, even though it's really bright … it really speaks to you about being pretty. "And I'd rather you spend time trying to become intelligent. "
Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images
5: Participate in your child's game to further expand the possibilities.
If the foam shots get out of control, ordering the fighters to take a timeout is not as effective, says Truglio. Instead, "maybe you take a character role … that will end this type of aggression."
Hains tells the story of a father who played princesses with his daughter – but who got out of the fire truck and sent the princesses on a rescue mission.
The good news is that pop culture may be helping us a bit more these days. Characters such as the powerful Elsa, the adventurous Moana, Wonder Woman and the new Captain Marvel, played by Brie Larson, push the boundaries for female heroines.
Another study by Dinella suggests that they have an impact. She asked preschoolers – boys and girls – to describe themselves and describe what they knew about princesses. Not surprisingly, they described the princesses as the typical girl of the girls who must be saved.
The researchers then showed the children video clips of newer princesses, like Merida's Courageous, take action and be powerful. Then they asked the same questions again.
Looking at these images has changed the way children think about princesses and, according to Dinella, this has also changed the children's own portrayal.
After seeing the princesses be powerful, girls and boys described themselves as more multidimensional: "They [would] say: "I am strong. I am powerful I am a leader. But also: "I care and share." "
In other words, when children, regardless of gender, spend time with more complex characters, it can change their way of seeing each other.
Truglio summarizes it this way. "Children play what they see, if you can see it you can play it – so one day you can play it."