Your childhood is one of the most important times in your life. It has a big hand in shaping the way you think and act when you’re older. You might underestimate the influence certain childhood experiences have on your psychology, but in truth, even the seemingly smallest details can impact how you think.
One example of this is the toys you were allowed to play with when you were a child. If you were a boy, did adults scold you for playing with Barbie dolls or other “girly” toys? If you were a girl, did adults encourage you to dress up and play house rather than with toy trucks and other “boyish” toys?
Sadly, assigning gender to toys is the reality for many children. In fact, studies of toy advertisements and catalogs over the years have shown that toys have become even more gendered today.
How are toys gendered?
There is nothing wrong with young girls preferring typically feminine toys and young boys preferring typically masculine toys. We all have certain tastes, after all, even as children. What is an issue, however, is when boys and girls are discouraged from playing with certain toys because adults perceive them as for the “wrong” gender.
It’s not just adults discouraging children from playing with certain toys, though. When children see toy commercials after toy commercials excluding their gender, they might naturally think, “this kind of toy isn’t for me.” For example, a compilation of Barbie doll commercials across eight decades shows one or multiple girls playing with the dolls in each commercial, but never any boys doing so.
Since children’s brains are still developing, they tend to perceive what adults tell them as absolutely correct with total finality. So, when an adult tells them that playing with certain toys is bad or wrong, they will most likely hold onto this information and take it to heart.
How does this affect children?
Children taking the word of adults and advertisements at face value means two things:
Firstly, if a boy had had interest in something perceived as “for girls,” like toy cooking utensils or makeup kits, there’s a good chance he will dismiss these toys after perceiving them as bad for him, thus abandoning a potential passion of his, i.e. cooking or makeup. The same is true for a girl who might abandon her interest in toy cars or dinosaurs because playing with them is “for boys.”
Second, this could cause the children to judge other children who are playing with, in their eyes, the “wrong” type of toys. This can promote ostracization and bullying among children.
What can we do about it?
If you are a parent and agree that toys should be gender neutral, just make sure to reassure your children of this, because they’re most likely hearing otherwise from other sources.
There are also campaigns to advertise toys more neutrally. Let Toys Be Toys is one such campaign in the United Kingdom. They’ve done research on toy gendering in the UK and even have resources on how to teach children about making toys gender neutral! If you’re not a parent but want to try convincing any parents you may know about this topic, Let Toys Be Toys is a great resource for that.
Toys don’t last forever, and neither do childhoods. If we could let children play with whatever toys spark their interest without judgment, they’ll be able to look back at their childhood more fondly and grow up to be potentially less judgemental people themselves.