From the moment she was born I was sure that my daughter was destined to be a tomboy.
With two older rough-and-tumble brothers surely she had no choice.
I frowned when people started buying her pink rabbits and raggedy patchwork dolls. She wouldn’t play with them!
Fast forward two years and her favourite toys are Shrek’s princess Fiona (in complete top-to-toe bridal outfit ) and a one footed Barbie that an older girl accidentally left in our front yard.
Give her a train, and she would probably put it in her toy pram and push it to the shops complete with her pretend handbag and her pasta-and-string threaded jewels.
That’s why the recent call in the UK for more gender-neutral toys in the lead up to Christmas made me call BULLSHIT.
Britain’s Telegraph write: “Walk into any British toy shop and you’ll be faced with a fork in the road: do you take the blue lane, with its miniature helicopters, chemistry sets and binoculars, or do you take the pink lane, with its kitchens, dolls and make up kits?
Despite the leaps and bounds in the gender equality movement over the past few decades, children’s learning tools are still stuck in the Fifties.” Perhaps things are different for the readers of the Telegraph, but take my kids into a toyshop in Australia and no matter the colour of the lane you’ll have the same result.
My sons inherently want the ugliest nosiest, sharpest, slimiest monster in the aisle, while my daughter just wants to give a cup of tea to the nearest cabbage patch kid and sweep the aisles with the mini pink broom.
My four-year old son has a natural ability to turn any long pointed object into a sword or a gun.
A toilet roll – a pistol.
Christmas wrapping paper – a pirate’s sword.
He is like a bowerbird seeking out shiny material. A nail on the street, a loose screw can become a plaything for hours.
Give him the one-footed Barbie and he would probably turn it upside down and shoot bullets out of its stumpy foot.
However it seems my kids might be walking these pink and blue aisles alone.
A UK initiative, the Let Toys Be Toys campaign asks retailers to arrange toys by theme and function rather than by gender.
The idea being that archaic gender stereotypes, limit the skills and hobbies children feel they are allowed to pursue.
Major retailers like Hamleys and Toys R us have embraced the idea and will now group their toys by theme rather than by gender.
Sweden too has embraced the idea of gender neutral toys, following in line with their gender neutral preschools where there are no boys and girls—just “friends” and “buddies.” And where classic fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White have been replaced by tales of two male giraffes who parent abandoned crocodile eggs.
The idea behind the toy store campaign is heartfelt but will it really have any practical use?
Adolescent and Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg says that there are marked differences between the brains of boys and girls. He points to a new study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, that has found striking differences between the way that men’s and women’s brains are wired to work.
The study, one of the largest ever conducted scrutinizing the “connectomes” that link different parts of the brain, was carried out by the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
A total of 949 individuals (521 females, 428 males) aged between eight and 22 underwent diffusion tension imaging, a sophisticated water-based imaging technique that can highlight and map out the fiber pathways of the brain.
The study found a greater degree of neural connectivity from front to back within one hemisphere in males, suggesting brains were wired to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action.
He says “admittedly, the study noted only a few gender differences in the connectivity in children under thirteen, but found more pronounced differences in 14 to 17-year-olds and young adults older than 17. I think that has more to do with the limitations of technology than the degree of difference.”
Just last year The Atlantic looked at a gender neutral toy catalogue and said “the problem with gender-neutral toy catalogs is that boys and girls, on average, do not have identical interests, propensities, or needs. Twenty years ago, Hasbro, a major American toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls.
It soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro manager came up with a novel explanation: “Boys and girls are different.”
The article cited research that said it was simply hard wired in us girls to play with the pink stuff. “Even among our close relatives such as vervet and rhesus monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars… Similar results are found in human beings.”
Surely a more reasonable approach is just to let kids play with what they want.
If my daughter wants to dress up as Princess Superman then let her go crazy. If my two sons want to bake Princess Fiona in the toy microwave oven then eat your hearts out (Just watch that Shrek doesn’t see you).
For Michael Carr-Gregg there’s no harm in letting a two-year old girl play with a princess or rock her doll to sleep. He says there are no peer reviewed studies that demonstrate harm.
For him the retailers in the UK and Sweden are simply following what the customers (i.e. the parents) demand.
As for whether the kids notice or not, he says, “I still think most little boys will gravitate to the boy toys irrespective of how they are marketed. Biology will win out in the end.”
Do you think toy companies and toy stores should be selling gender neutral toys? Do you think the kinds of toys kids choose are biologically inherent, or do you think they follow the example of what they see other little boys and girls playing with?