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Gender-stereotyping: Shopping for children’s toys - “girl toys” and “boy toys"

“Parents need to understand what it does to girls who grow up thinking they’re not good at something that they haven’t even been exposed to just because of their gender,” Carrie Leopold, CEO and founder of Inspire Innovation Lab in Moorhead says.

FARGO - While you’re out shopping this holiday season, take a walk through any major retailer’s toy section. You’ll notice a clear divide between pink and blue – “girl toys” and “boy toys.”

It’s an exercise Ann Burnett, director of women and gender studies at North Dakota State University, asks her gender and communication students to do.

“Sometimes you’ll see a little boy with an apron on or a little girl with boxing gloves on, but for the most part, it’s pretty gender-stereotyped,” she says.

Not all girls want to play with princesses, nor do all boys want to play with superheroes. In fact, some boys want to play with princesses, and some girls want to play with superheroes.

Parents like Moorhead friends Clare Palmer and Katrina Schwartz say that’s OK.

Palmer’s 5-year-old son, Cooper, likes superheroes, cars and trucks, and traditionally masculine Lego sets, but he also likes the color pink, The Littlest Pet Shop and My Little Ponies.

“I’ve been trying to raise him in a way that allows him to understand that there aren’t ‘boy’ things and ‘girl’ things, there are just things, but it’s difficult,” his 25-year-old mom says.

The best way to handle it, she says, is to provide children with an array of toys targeted toward both genders and let them choose what they want to play with.

For his birthday recently, Cooper got a variety of toys, including Legos, a science kit and a set of “Frozen” figurines.

Although the main characters from “Frozen” are female, the Disney movie and its merchandise have been a big hit with both boys and girls. JCPenney’s top gift this year is a 15-inch plush Olaf, the goofy snowman sidekick to the film’s Princess Anna.

Joshua, Schwartz’s 4-year-old son and Cooper’s playmate, is among Olaf’s fans.

He, too, is learning that “all toys are for all kids.”

“The gender bias isn’t present in our home,” says Katrina Schwartz. “If a boy plays with a doll, it’s parenting skills; if he’s sweeping or vacuuming, it’s a life skill. If a girl comes here and plays with rocks, bugs and dirt, she’s doing science.”

Phrases like “Boys don’t play with x,” or “Only girls play with y” don’t fly in her household.

Yet they’re commonly heard spoken by children and adults alike, in public, in school and in day care, and packaging continues to dictate who should be playing with what.

Burnett says gender division in toys can be harmful to both genders.

“It’s a problem because girls get the notion that they can’t play with tools, and boys get the notion that they’re not allowed to play with dolls,” she says, but both types of play are essential to development.

Campaigns like the U.K.’s Let Toys Be Toys and startups like GoldieBlox and Yellow Scope have made waves in the toy industry by pushing toy companies and retailers to change the way they package and advertise their toys and introducing new toys that break stereotypes.

Carrie Leopold, CEO and founder of Inspire Innovation Lab in Moorhead, is keeping an eye on Yellow Scope, a no-frills science kit for girls seeking funding on Kickstarter.

“Girls aren’t as exposed to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as much as boys, or they only see ‘girl versions’ of it, like a science kit that’s about makeup, perfume and spa treatments,” she says.

The coloring and the femininity or masculinity of a toy or game play a big role in children’s expected beliefs and behaviors. Limiting their options, she says, can affect their self-confidence and self-worth.

“Parents need to understand what it does to girls who grow up thinking they’re not good at something that they haven’t even been exposed to just because of their gender,” she says.

Like Cooper, Leopold’s youngest daughter, 7-year-old Lydia, enjoys a mix of “girly” and “boyish” activities. She loves to wear dresses, for example, but she also loves to play in the mud.

Leopold says that’s just where her interests lie, so she allows it.

“Let your girls get dirty,” she says. “Parents will let their sons build a volcano, blow it up and make a mess in the kitchen, but they tell their daughters they shouldn’t get dirty. They need that exploration, too.”


By Meredith Holt, Forum News Service.

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