A UBC psychologist cautions against gender-specific toys
‘Tis the season for giving. But, as UBC developmental psychologist Andrew Scott Baron cautions, the gifts children receive can send stifling messages about gender roles and stereotypes.
What kinds of toys should parents avoid giving children?
Parents, friends and relatives can inadvertently give toys that reinforce gender stereotypes about play, and what types of toys kids want to interact with. The more it gets pounded into kids—be typical, be typical, be typical—the less they feel they can explore other aspects of their identity that might be more gender atypical.
Our work shows that as early as three years of age, children are aware that there are certain boy-typical and girl-typical activities and toys. I recently published a paper showing that by age six or seven, boys felt like they could do whatever they want when they grow up, and girls were more inclined to think they would be at home and not have professional careers.
Parents should also be conscious that the more they show an interest and approval of a toy and activity, the more the child internalizes that. When parents show a lack of engagement with something a child’s doing or interacting with, the more the child thinks there’s something strange about it—that maybe it’s not OK.
What toys are good for kids?
If your daughter really loves dolls, for instance, try to find some that expand their thinking about gender roles, such as a female scientist doll. For boys, you might think about toys that aren’t just gender-reinforcing. Give children ways to explore other interests or identities. I think objects that can invite imagination exploration are good: painting, Lego, puzzles.
Choose activities that encourage children to use language and interact, whether it’s puzzles or games they can play. For younger kids, pretend play is especially important. If they’re school-aged, you might want to think about gifts that reflect the values you care about. Maybe there’s some kind of interactive book or puzzle that can get them to use their critical thinking skills.
What about video games and DVDs?
There’s no good research supporting television or video games. Even with shows or games meant to help children share or be more considerate, the effects only last for a short period, and then they disappear.
When it comes to electronic toys, such as language-learning toys for infants and toddlers, little work has shown them to be helpful. They might be engaging, but kids learn language best by interacting with a real person.
As for toys that just go “bang bang, noise noise,” parents have to weigh the tradeoff. Yes, it may captivate a child, but children were captivated by things before batteries were invented. Over time it’s probably going to annoy the parent and affect how they interact with the child. Some of your choices as a parent are about managing your own wellbeing so you can maximize your patience with the kids.