Have you seen the GoldieBlox video?
It was pretty much inescapable for a few days on my social media websites. Everyone was sharing it, liking it, commenting on it.
The more I thought about the concept, the more uncomfortable it made me.
I don’t like toys aimed at girls.
I don’t like toys aimed at boys, either, for that matter.
I get hugely frustrated by how easily our society carves up children’s play, decreeing that certain activities or toys or concepts are off limits to anyone not possessing the right set of genitalia.
No one ever says that, of course. No one has to. Everything about a toy from its design, its colouring, its packaging, right down to the happy faces of the children on the box tells you that it is for either girls or boys. Kids learn to read the message the product is sending them, whether they are included or excluded, long before they can read the words on the box. Gender labelling is so ubiquitous that Harrod’s – the iconic London department store – made front page headlines across the globe in August 2012 when it opened its newly redesigned Toy Kingdom. The change that prompted all this media attention? The toys were now organized by theme, rather than by gender. Other major chains in the U.K. have since announced they will follow suit.
What bothers me most about toys like the GoldieBlox is I feel like they have a hidden asterisk attached to them. Engineering Toys for Girls! *because girls really aren’t very good at engineering unless we give them something special just for them.
At the extreme end of things we get products like the pink version of Yahtzee, which boasts a fuzzy dice cup, a pink pencil and scorecard, and modified dice with hearts, butterflies, flip flops, flowers, cell phones and dresses on each side instead of one to six pips. You know. Because girls can’t do math.
I’ll wait a minute while your head explodes. I know mine did the first time I heard about it.
I’m not angry with the woman behind GoldieBlox. I understand what she’s trying to do, and if it means that a toy that fosters STEM skills makes it into the pink aisles in the toy stores (because most of them still do have aisles organized by colour), and a parent or grandparent who never thinks to look outside that aisle takes it off the shelf, that’s great. I wouldn’t buy it myself, because I can’t look past the fact that she took a toy that could have been gender-neutral and chose to pitch it exclusively to girls. But I also sympathize, especially since I recently had a reminder of just how difficult these gender stereotypes can be to break.
A few months ago my two year old son developed an obsession with vehicles. He’s always liked cars and trucks and other things that go, but this was a whole new level. It was ALL he wanted to do. Go to the park? He’d play with the metal Tonka trucks left there for everyone to use and pitch a fit if I suggested he try the swings or the slide. Go to nursery school? He’d run in the door and head straight for the shelf where the recycling truck was. At home for the morning? He would lovingly load every single piece of Duplo into his garbage truck, tip them all out when it was finally full, and start all over again.
I’m sure there are parents out there who could spend hours driving small plastic vehicles around the carpet making “vroom vroom” noises, but I am not one of them. I was bored out of my mind. Worse, I was frustrated. The more he played with his trucks, the more annoyed I became.
And then one day it finally hit me.
If my son had been a girl, if I had had a daughter who spent her days pushing a giant garbage truck around our living room, I would have been ecstatic. I would have interpreted it as proof that I was doing something right, that nurture was triumphing over nature, that we were succeeding in raising a child who wouldn’t be limited by her gender.
Yet when my son gravitated to the exact same toys, I wasn’t proud. I was, quite frankly, irritated. Couldn’t he see the lovely wooden farm languishing unloved in the corner? Why didn’t he want to play with that, or his stuffed animals, or his doll? We’d worked hard to make sure our son had access to all types of toys, not just those the marketers told us he should like. He was making those marketers look good, dammit! What was wrong with him?!
There was nothing wrong with my son.
There was nothing wrong with the toys.
It was me who had the problem.
Somewhere along the line I had lost sight of the goal of following my child’s interests and had subconsciously decided that if my son played with toys not traditionally aimed at boys that made me a Good Mother.
Without even realizing it I had found myself competing in the Parenting Olympics again. At stake this time was the prize for the parent who had raised the child best able to stretch beyond the limits imposed by society for his/her particular gender. Bonus points for parents whose sons loved dolls and cooking! Kudos to the parents of daughters who were obsessed with rocket ships and dinosaurs!
I never wanted my son to be told that he “was such a boy”, never wanted his emotions to be dismissed or his physicality praised solely because he has a penis. Yet for all my vaunted ideals about genderless toy selection, I’d gone and done the exact opposite. I’d so strongly classified toys as belonging to particular gender categories that I was no longer capable of seeing that a truck was just a truck. Instead of it being “bad” to only bring “boy” toys into the house, I was treating it as “bad” when my son only wanted to play with what I was still clearly categorizing as “boy” toys. I felt like my son had been duped by the marketing spin, and that this represented a failure on my part as a parent.
I’d lost sight of the fact that trucks are, inherently, really cool.
I’d lost sight of the fact that trucks made my son incandescently happy.
I’d lost sight of the fact that a toy really is just a toy, until we parents start butting in.
Shortly after I had this embarrassing epiphany, my son’s single-minded obsession with his vehicles eased. He still plays with his garbage truck and his trains every single day. But he likes other things again: books (especially ones with vehicles in them), and puzzles (especially ones with vehicles), and Duplo (mainly used to build even more vehicles). Some days the garbage truck drives to the farm to “pick up all the poo!” and then the farm animals go for a ride in the dump truck. Some days the stuffed animals come out of the cubby to hide under the blanket with us and his imaginary dump truck.
And, yes, some days I still spend hours on the carpet pushing around small plastic vehicles, making “vroom vroom” noises. But now we’re both having fun.