Gender Neutral Toys: Taming the Playroom One Pink Lego at a Time?

Lego's new girl-friendly Friends series. From Lego site.
Taking a break from stripping my playroom of the pink and blue plastic paraphernalia otherwise known as toys.  It's a never-ending task that comes easily to my mother who also happens to be in town for the holidays, thank you, mom.  So just read an op-ed by Peggy Orenstein who's asking a now familiar question - Does Stripping Toys of Gender Really Make Sense?  The Cinderella Ate My Daughter author wonders in today's New York Times whether Lego's new Friends collection set in the make-believe mecca "Heartlake City" amidst plenty of pastel bricks does more harm than good for young girls:
So who has it right? Should gender be systematically expunged from playthings? Or is Lego merely being realistic, earnestly meeting girls halfway in an attempt to stoke their interest in engineering? Should the World of Toys be Gender-Free?  New York Times, January 30.

Orenstein's done her homework.  Toy preference is one of the most robust (i.e. most studied) sex differences on record both among preschoolers and primates.  Little boy monkeys prefer the cars, girl monkeys, dolls.  Pretty amazing evidence of genetic programming but it's also true that the environment impacts preferences too.  So living in a princessified pink play land might steer girls away from those typically masculine skills like spatial abilities.  On a good note, there's some evidence girls who grow up with big brothers do in fact have slightly more spatial abilities than boys and girls who have older sisters.

But before you go adopting an older brother, there's also research showing boys who grow up with older sisters are more egalitarian-minded, make better boyfriends and husbands.  You know, if marriage and monogamy aren't too gender stereotyped for you.

Dressing up in all the stereotypical, gender-roled Disney finery might have some positive effects too - witness research from a few years ago showing youngsters who really groove onto gender stereotypes early in life become less stereotypic older children. All the early training somehow enabled them to shrug off the mantle of societal expectations.  I'd look it up but I'm on vacation and the house is in peri-holiday shambles. 

As in other areas of human behavior, oh what the heck, and the physical universe, there are always trade-offs.  Butterfly wings and all.  Or as my son would prefer, wasp wings.     

But I'm not worried a bit about toys. 

It's not as if we don't have any tools to dismantle gender stereotypes and perhaps more important, influence behavior.   It's not like parents are forced to pick a gender path and stick to it.

As a social psychologist by training - with a very dry dissertation on cognitive processes involved in social judgments such as gender perception to show for it -  I'd be remiss not to worry about the heavy-handed cultural imperatives of masculinity and femininity operating on my easily influenced progeny.

Of course I also thought I'd have one of those really bookish boys who winces at balls and shuns overt displays of masculine aggression.  Girls who hated pink and couldn't wait to join Chess club and play trombone. 

Now those gender fantasies haven't exactly happened but all my kids play with a jumble of multi-colored Legos including the motorized car accessories, the house kits with flowers and kitchens, the pink, the blue and everything in between.  I never liked pink or pastels myself so I tended towards the bright primaries in the toy aisles.  Not so my girls, especially my middle child who wore out a couple pairs of pink cowboy boots that made her feel like a princess. 

A few years later she and her sister wouldn't even think of wearing so much as a speck of fuchsia on the sole of their shoes.  The former is now a talented soccer player who plays football at recess, favors non-fiction and eschews Judy Moody and all other annoying girl heroines; the latter, a tween who shuns girly anything, wears navy and black while excelling at math and science.   My son, who's only in kindergarten, is half-professional athlete in training and half-bashful momma's boy who likes to help me cook and told Santa it was okay if he couldn't bring him a Chrensfrmr (i.e. Transformer).

Don't think the Barbies (oh we got a few, mostly headless by now), the play strollers, the castles, the cars, the train set, the dinosaur puzzles, or color of Legos much mattered.  Really, I bet the toys have been merely a scapegoat, a symbol of our own parental expectations. 

So I'm blaming you and me and every other adult and oh teachers too, the educators don't get a free pass here.  I'm calling us all out on this notion that clothing and toys really make such an enormous difference on their own.  They're probably merely a confounding factor with the underlying, latent variable being us and our own overt and covert behavior.

The roiling cauldron of gender stereotypes is much more insidious than a mere prettified set of Legos.  It's the subtle messages and interactions that make a girl gifted at math say she's not good at math - my own daughter, circa 3rd grade.  I'm still trying to figure that one out.  From early on I've modeled it, lived it, spooned the ooze into the beaker from the kiddie science kit, spoken out against it, ranted against the stereotype that boys are inherently better at math and science - even told my kids that in more progressive countries (e.g., Denmark) there are no gender differences in math and science -  and still the pernicious idea took hold of my daughter's confidence.  She's better now, thanks, but I'm not.  Been stewing about it and wondering how to better spark that confidence and curiosity.

Okay, back to the playroom I go....merry, merry, happy whatever, best wishes for the New Year. 


Awesome Mom said...

This is something that I am thinking about even though my girl is only three months old. I know she will have a ton of boy toys around since she has three older brothers. I try and keep the toys more open ended and gender neutral even before I had her just because those are the ones that last the longest in play value.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

So I posted a piece on my new Momma Data column over at Psychology Today (find the icon at the top left of the MD blog. I wrote that the sets come pre-assembled. A careful reader, Derek said that he had to build the tree-house bc it was too difficult for his 5 yr old daughter. Sure enough I check out the manual online and it does require some assembly. In any event I think many are not happy that it requires far less assembly than many boys kits, at least the ones in the older range. My 6 year-old son has had some complicated ones in the past few years too. Anyhow....interesting fodder.