Every egalitarian parent has a story like “I bought my son some sweet little teddy bears – he had them roar and crash into each other. I bought my daughter trains, and she had the mama train take care of the baby train.” It is true that one of the biggest differences between boys and girls are in the toys they choose to play with, and how they play with them. “It’s bigger than [differences in] verbal skills, math, aggression and risk taking. [But] I think it is misleading because parents see the difference in toy selection and draw a line to everything else.” (Eliot)
The difference in interests may have some biological influence, but is also very much a product of culture. At 6 – 12 months, boys and girls are interested in the same toys. For example, both like dolls a lot, because all babies are enamored of the human face. Boys have a very slight preference for wheeled vehicles, but otherwise they’re mostly the same.
But by age 3, there are major differences in preferred toys, and even more so at 5, especially for boys. In an experiment, five year old boys would spend less than 10% of their play time with “girl” toys. Girls would split their time much more evenly between boy toys and girl toys.
Let’s look at how this developmental shift lines up with children’s growing understanding of their cultural gender.
When do children learn about gender? (Source)
- 7 months. Start to tell the difference between male and female voices
- 12 months. Start to tell the difference between male and female faces
- 2 years. Girls begin to play with ‘girl toys’ and boys with ‘boy toys.’
- 2- 3 years. Begin to label themselves and others as male or female
- 3 – 4 years. Start actively categorizing things as boy things and girl things and talking about “boys like to do this” or “girls like to do that”
- 4 – 6 years. Say “only boys can do this” or “only girls do that”
- 6 – 7 years. Children understand that gender is constant: boys grow up to be men*; girls won’t ever be daddies; and that person up on the stage is a man even if he is dressed like a woman.
It is telling that, in our modern culture, girls are still happy to play with “boy toys” even after they begin to internalize gender roles, but the boys avoid “girl toys.” This reflects a broader cultural reality that we now tell our girls they can do anything – wear pants, do math, climb trees, etc. But we still discourage our boys from doing “girly things”.
Each family makes their own choices about how to handle gender based toys. Some parents choose to buy only gender neutral toys, but then are surprised that their boys may play with them in “boy” ways – crashing them together, and their girls may play with them in more “girl” ways – cuddling them and creating characters.
Some parents only buy toys that are marketed to their child’s gender. So their girl’s room is filled with dolls, ponies, and pink. Their boy’s room is filled with balls, cars, and superheroes. If their child plays with toys aimed at the other gender, they may be surprised by this.
Others follow their child’s interests. My son is in many ways a stereotypical boy, and leans toward many “boy” toys – trains, cars, balls, Legos, and space toys. But he’s also wild about a toy called Shopkins – little anthropomorphized household goods that are very much marketed as “girl” toys. Here he is on the first day of kindergarten, confounding gender expectations with his combination of Lego astronaut t-shirt, and sparkly pink Shopkins backpack.
As a parent, you can choose your own path, and adapt it as you go along. There’s no right answer. It’s about finding a balance of what pleases your child and what fits in with your family values, and with the culture of peers that your child will encounter.
Source: Big Think interview with Lise Eliot.
Photo credits: Action figure JD Hancock via photopin cc; Doll http://www.freeimages.com/browse.phtml?f=view&id=356461
* Note: transgender women and men are the exception to this general “rule.” For example, a transgender woman was born with male genitalia and labelled a boy, but at some point in childhood or adulthood, identifies herself as female. Estimates are that perhaps 1% of people are transgender, but it’s often very hard for cisgender people to understand this. Perhaps because we form this idea of gender as a constant at this young age of 6 or 7. It is easier for a child to understand things as absolutes… either a boy or a girl. But as they get older, we can help them understand that many things are not quite so binary.