Send a Different Message to Our Kids, Please
Gender-neutral toys—if one were to walk into the typical toy store, one would have no idea such a thing existed. The boys’ section heralded by huge yellow trucks, the girls area a celebration of pink: These stores predispose shoppers to think inside prescribed boxes. But what’s fun about that?
The New York Times reported on Monday that with consumer research showing that more dads are buying the toys these days, new toys are being introduced that cross the boy/girl divide. Yet even with the introduction of a Barbie “construction” set (i.e., LEGO-like blocks to build scenes for your Barbie doll), I’d argue that a line is still clearly drawn. I don’t at all have a problem, like some critics, with the fact that a set such as this is “girlie”—it’s good to specifically target girls with a building toy that helps them, like boys, develop spatial thinking early on, in my opinion. But I don’t see this as the dawn of a new era.
I admit that I’ve read a lot about this issue over the years, from my days as an editor at the now-defunct Child magazine followed by Parenting and now NYMetroParents. So I don’t feel like I have a whole lot that’s original to add to the conversation. But I do wonder: Why is this conversation still going on at all? If research shows that certain toys are good across genders—for development, learning, and pure fun—and countless articles both mainstream and academic have been written about it…why are toy stores still boxing us in?
One of our editors mentioned to me the other day that she only got to play with LEGOs when she visited her cousin, a boy, at his house. I was truly astonished. I never even considered that there could be a childhood without LEGOs.
I’ve come to realize that my mother was ahead of her time. My collection of playthings was quite gender-balanced. I had blocks and building toys of every kind (an Erector set, Lincoln Logs, LEGOs) and vehicles that today might be considered for boys. I also had an Easy-Bake Oven, Holly Hobby Colorforms, and Fashion Plates (things my brother and I never fought over!).
For the most part, though, most of the toys I recall playing with were simply toys—not mine nor his, not blue nor pink (we had to put stickers on our red-and-yellow Big Wheels to tell them apart): Lite Brite, Play-Do (not in those imagination-inhibiting “sets” of today), balls of every size, Twister. Even video games were less defined by gender in my day (sure, there was Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man, but come on).
I read a small item earlier today about a mom petitioning Hasbro to put a boy on the box of the Easy Bake Oven, and one commenter wrote: “My grandson loves to bake. Not one boy on the easy bake oven box. Lost a sale.” And therein lies one of the biggest problems: Individuals buying into the hype. Why let packaging matter so much? Lots of boys like to cook, so who the hell cares if there is a boy on the label or not? Send a different message to our children, people, please.