Toy-makers, book publishers, film and TV producers, plus advertisers all exploit gender differences to make money. Usually, this takes the form of feminisation. Recently, Lego abandoned its long-held gender neutrality to launch toys aimed specifically at girls with a pink-boxed “Lego Friends” line that features a dream house, splash pool and beauty salon. US protestors gathered a petition with 50,000 signatures calling on Lego to change its strategy.
Child psychologist Jennifer Wills agrees that all this is purely commercial pressure to sell things. The most important way to prepare your child for any stereotypes and hurdles they may encounter, she points out, is to give them well-rounded experiences to boost confidence.
“I loathe gender marketing. I think it’s negative for both sexes, sends terrible messages…”
“Pink toys tend to lean towards tea sets, doll’s pushchairs and miniature ironing boards, reinforcing the idea of ‘women’s work’,” Wills notes. “Actually, toddlers of both sexes love to pretend-play what they see in real life. Little boys get just as much out of pushing a dolly in a pram as a girl.”
Amy Chin, 33, mum to Thea, 4, couldn’t agree more. “I loathe gender marketing. I think it’s negative for both sexes, sends terrible messages and I hate how insidious it is,” she adds. “Thea recently saw an ad for an aquarium and said she didn't want to go, as it was only for boys. When I asked why, she said it was because of all the blue water!”
Don’t just laugh at that thinking. “We can’t deny gender differences, but we do tend to exaggerate them unnecessarily,” notes Jane Pilcher, a senior sociology lecturer at the University of Leicester in the UK. You can spot the girls’ aisle in toy shops a mile off, thanks to all the bright pink boxes. The world is reinforcing stereotypes and narrowing the world for your daughter, if everything is about “prettiness” or “domesticity”. Similarly, it’s restricting for boys to live in a mash-it-and-bash-it blue world.
Australian author and childcare expert Steve Biddulph is firm. “Avoid anything aimed only at girls — the world does that enough already,” he warns. “For both genders, the less corporate their toys, and the more natural and brand-less, the better.”
He doesn’t advocate vastly different approaches to bringing up the sexes, but does note certain physical differences. Infant girls have 80 per cent better hearing when it comes to human voices than boys, which makes them more sensitive to raised voices or shouting. However, boys are more prone to separation anxiety, so Biddulph believes it may be wise to start their pre-schooling a year later than girls.
Parents also instil gender stereotypes in their little ones without realising it. Studies show that if a parent sees some rabbits, they’ll tell a girl, “Look at those cute bunnies”, but say to a boy, “Look at those five bunnies”.
“For both genders, the less corporate their toys, and the more natural and brand-less, the better.”
Biddulph warns that if you’re not careful, you could unconsciously project a gender expectation that girls are all about sweetness and feelings, while boys are linked with cold, hard facts.
“Just be more mindful and conscious of gender issues,” Wills advises. “It might take a bit more work to find non-stereotypical books or toys, but it is possible. They’ll give your child just as much pleasure, but not hammer home sexist messages and narrow their horizons.”
Noriani Ahmad, 43, makes a conscious effort to seek out books with strong female characters for her daughter, Liza, 4.
“For Liza’s birthday recently, I found myself buying her a bow, arrow and dagger, despite my hatred for weapons, because her new favourite film is Narnia,” adds Noriani. “To me, princesses going into battle are infinitely preferable to Snow White or Barbie as role models.”
“Princesses going into battle are infinitely preferable to Snow White or Barbie as role models.
Also, keep a watchful eye on your offspring’s individual differences. “Follow your child’s lead and let his or her personality guide you,” Wills advises.
If your daughter shows a preference for climbing and playing with cars, this is more important than the baby doll you bought her. Similarly, if you have a son who is quiet and shy, by all means find him a sports team to join, but only if you think it will make him happier and more confident — not because you think it’s what boys should do.
Chin notes, “Thea loves to play princesses, but the next minute, she’s a pirate or a lion killing someone. She can be quite aggressive about it, too.”
Toddlers also need space to experiment and play with everything. Noriani says, “At the moment, Liza wants to be an astronaut — luckily, she doesn’t seem put off by the fact that all space toys seem to feature boys on the box.”
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