Give your kid gender-neutral playthings, says mum Eugenia Koh. An expert gives his take on whether toys affect sexual orientation.

“As a toddler, my son didn’t show any kind of interest in toys for the longest time. I tried to get him interested in toys by introducing him to common boy-centric ones like dinosaurs, tractors and animals.

The funny thing was that Kevin was more interested in the mallet that came with the xylophone. There was a period of time where he went to bed clutching the mallet — which he refers to as ‘the stick’. He had to sleep with it — it was his solace.

Naturally, I was afraid that he might hurt himself by sleeping with the mallet, so I tried replacing it with other things of similar shape. As the mallet is a long stick with a rubber bulb on one end, I bought a lollipop with the same shape, but it didn’t work.

Then out of the blue, he started loving giraffes. It was random, but I was so happy that I bought a set of different animals, hoping he would like these as well, but that didn’t happen. Shortly after, he moved on to excavators and diggers.

I started wondering what could be driving these toy preferences? I realised later that it may be because of his sensory needs — he seemed to find it soothing to play with objects with a ‘long neck’.

“I realised later that it may because of his sensory needs — he seemed to find it soothing to play with objects with a ‘long neck’.”

Then, about two years ago, Kevin and his sister started watching Lego Friends, which seemed to trigger his interest in clothing design. He’d bug me to buy the Lego set, but would only be interested in the figurines. These were expensive ― easily costing $60 to $80 each. He’d be fascinated with it for a short while and then he wouldn’t touch it again. So, it was very difficult to support this interest.


After Lego, he moved on to the clip-on Disney princess dolls ― princess figurines with a variety of clip-on dresses. He liked dressing up the dolls and mixing and matching the different clothes.

Now, he has a newest craze: Shoppies and Shopkins. Essentially shop items — anything from a cup of juice to ice cream — these figurines can come alive. Kevin has a great attention to detail. After studying the dolls, he’ll know each one by heart. From their eyes, lips, even their hair — he’ll know the colour, the length and the style of the hair on each doll. He’ll also take note if it wears a dress or a two-piece outfit, long sleeves or short sleeves.



As a marketing teacher, I’m conscious that companies use gender-marketing tactics — like separating toys into masculine and feminine groups ― to double their profits. While I support Kevin’s interests, I realised there is no such thing as girls’ toys or boys’ toys to our children — they perceive playthings to be gender-neutral. Gendered play [playing with toys that are stereotypically associated with their gender] is an adult concept! Our children’s choice of toys is based on what they enjoy playing with the most ― it has no impact on their gender interest or inclination.

By nature, I have realised Kevin is a very self-conscious child. This is the difference between my two children — my son worries a lot, he’s very unsure of himself and he needs more affirmation as compared to his jie jie (Chinese for elder sister). So, for the longest time, Kevin didn’t dare to be seen playing with the dolls outside of our home because he says that people will laugh at him. With my hubby and daughter’s help, we constantly reassure him that his dolls — like all of his other playthings — are gender-neutral. After some time, I started to see him come out of his shell.

“What we’re doing is imposing adult concepts on our children. We influence their thinking and they start to infer that they’re doing something that isn’t normal.”

I’m a big advocate for children experimenting with all forms of play. I want Kevin to feel confident enough to play without being restricted by our own ideas of what gender is. If a girl picks up a superman costume, you’d call it playing dress up but when a boy wears a princess costume — it’s wrong. What we’re doing is imposing adult concepts on our children. We influence their thinking and they start to infer that they’re doing something that isn’t normal. It’s unhealthy to fill their heads with doubt at such a young age.


I’m also very thankful to my husband who’s been supportive this whole time. We also checked with our family psychologist to see if we should be concerned about his fascination with dolls and what impact it would have on his sexual orientation.

Our psychologist confirmed what I was thinking: A child’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with the kinds of toys they like. While there’s the nature and nurture debate regarding sexual orientation, I doubt sexual orientation is the result of how a child is nurtured. It’s innate.

Unknowingly, Kevin’s interest in dolls also became a starting point for my hubby and me to broach the subject of sexual orientation. Let’s say Kevin is gay, what do we think about it? What are we going to do about it? Are we scared? The next question to ask is: What are we scared of? That our child will face a life of isolation?


The answers to these questions weren’t obvious. But one thing I knew for sure ― my natural inclination as a mother is to do everything in my power to support my son. That’s when I told my hubby that if our child is really gay, he’s only going to need more love and support.

While we can’t stop other people from ostracising him, we can offer him more love and support to let him know that no matter how tough the going may get, his family will always be right behind him, loving him for who he is and cheering him on.

“One thing I knew for sure ― my natural inclination as a mother is to do everything in my power to support my son.”


We also don’t believe that the toys you play affects your sexual orientation. It doesn’t mean that just because you play with a certain group of toys, it’s going to affect your femininity or masculinity. If you know Kevin, you’ll know that my son isn’t any less ‘male’ than the average boy just because he plays with dolls. He climbs trees, dresses up in a knight outfit, asks annoying questions repeatedly, and scribbles and draws on things he shouldn’t.

For me, this experience is a sobering reflection of the world we live in: That a girl can dress in a Superman T-shirt and Spider-man school bag but boys can’t be seen playing with Barbie dolls without being labelled as soft and effeminate.

Being a mother, I know what it’s like to be part of a group of people who are often discriminated against or being judged for their actions. This time, the tables have turned and it’s our sons who are on the losing end. So, I hope we can be a more inclusive community by being tolerant of all our differences.”

Eugenia Koh, 39, a marketing lecturer, is mum to Kevin, 6, and Ashley, 10.


Seeding Minds’ counselling psychologist Eugene Chong gives his take on how toys can improve your child’s development and well-being…

How important are toys and playtime in our kids’ wellbeing and development?

Toys can aid your child’s development in the areas of thinking, physical and social skills. Therefore, toys and playtime are good mediums to boost your child’s holistic development. It helps improve your child’s gross and fine motor movements by exercising their muscles. Your child will also be able to utilise toys to better their imagination and problem-solving ability with “pretend play”. Junior’s playthings are also a great platform for him to gain greater social awareness and empathy. But parents should be mindful to instil rules or limitations to reduce the risk of danger posed to their child during playtime. Otherwise, there are no major negative effects on the well-being of your child. Another possible negative element in play that parents should be aware of is the kind of object being played with — parents should try to minimise exposure to electronic devices.

What are some of the skills boys gain from playing with “girl” toys — for example playing with dolls and cooking sets?

Among the many skills and values that your child can learn, one of the important attributes is probably empathy. In the process of [playing with] traditionally girls’ toys, you learn to be more nurturing, and perhaps, understand emotions better. This is an advantage for “masculine” individuals to gain valuable skills in managing household chores.


What are some of the values or lessons that girls can learn from playing with boys’ toys — playing with guns and swords or action figures?

Such play often provides the opportunity for the girls to choreograph play and boost their imaginative skills. It also enhances your child’s holistic development, allowing them to be technical and innovative, which are crucial skills in pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) industries.

What should parents do if their child wants to play with toys that aren’t typically associated with their gender?

The ideal way is not to focus so much on the issue, you should try and understand your kiddo’s reasons for their choice of toys, instead. Typically, by school-going age, your child will gain other interests that’ll overtake the current ones. Don’t punish them or criticise their choice. Otherwise, they may repress these interests and may give rise to concerns [see bullet points below] in the future.

“Junior’s playthings are also a great platform for him to gain greater social awareness and empathy.”

Talk to a trained therapist or psychologist if you see these warning signs… If your child…

* Doesn’t know their sex by their third birthday;

* Consistently says that he or she prefers to be of the opposite gender;

* Consistently speaks ill of or denies his or her own sexual anatomy; or

* Maintains that he/she will eventually develop the sexual anatomy of the opposite sex.

How can parents teach their kids to handle teasing from their classmates?

You can prepare your child for such a situation by explaining it to them or using role play. Otherwise, there also has to be a constant open and honest communication between the parent and child.

Will playing with toys associated with the opposite sex lead to problems of sexual identity when the child grows up?

There is no adequate research to indicate if these such a link. Toys are typically gender-neutral in essence and children, at the experimental age, like to explore different items they find interesting. Unless they exhibit the warning signs mentioned earlier, it shouldn’t be a major concern. Problems with sexual identity depends on many different factors like parental involvement, possible genetic predisposition, various environmental factors and other possible early exposure.

Photos: Eugenia Koh and iStock

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