Ages 2-5Media & Technology

Wheels

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.

Pink dice, on the other hand, would have been fine.

Pink dice, on the other hand, would have been fine.

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.

What a surprise! This again?!

What a surprise! This 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!

The sort of trophy I imagine the victorious parents receiving

The sort of trophy I imagine the victorious parents receiving.

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.

(Images: Janet McKnight, rda, regan76, Ron Sombilon)

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Angela

Angela

Angela spent her early thirties trying to keep her head above water while raising her son and finishing her doctorate. With the PhD in hand and her son about to head off to school, she now has to figure out what comes next. She lives in a southern part of the Great White North with her husband, her son, and two Antipodean cats.

18 Comments

  1. December 17, 2013 at 10:07 am —

    Great post! I deal with this balancing act a lot at work, we’re supposed to make sure we’re incorporating girls into STEM endeavors, but I find it insulting when that means wrapping things in pink, or specifically not including boys. Why not make programs (or toys, or shows) that don’t scream “boys only!” or “girls only!” In trying to hit a certain group we solidify the gap. Instead of, like you said “engineering for girls!” it needs to be “engineering for everyone!”.

  2. December 17, 2013 at 1:18 pm —

    I have five young nieces, and this year, 7 year-old Niece Number 2 has gotten interested in Legos, which I’m thrilled about. I wanted to get her a tub-o-legos for Christmas, and vacillated between the blue tub and the pink tub. I really wanted to get the blue tub on principle, but damn-it, the pink one had the horse in it! So I went pink, and I don’t feel bad about it. I usually try to purchase gender-neutral gifts for my nieces (even trying to avoid pink in the clothes I get them), but they love dolls and Barbies and dressing up as princesses, and I do feed those addictions as well. I just try to be casually “why not?” when they talk about not having or playing with toys for “boys”.

    • December 18, 2013 at 10:22 am —

      My son is getting a dump truck for Christmas. It’s what he wanted, and it will make him SO happy, so I bought one. Does it make me happy to have another truck in the house? Not really. But it’s not about me.

  3. December 17, 2013 at 1:33 pm —

    I admit I was a little disappointed that my daughter never got into Legos or other building toys. She played with Barbies a lot, but awesomely, she almost always made them into Harry Potter characters! My take on explaining genderish toy preferences is that it’s something like trying to figure out whether a certain storm is due to climate change. Climate is the background against which weather events happen – it defines the extremes of what is possible, and individual events are randomly distributed within those extremes. I think each of us is born with a unique gender “climate” against which individual preferences are expressed, possibly influenced by social pressures, but maybe not as much as we fear. The best we can do as parents is pay attention to our kids’ preferences, make sure they have access to the things that interest them, and always let them know that it’s OK to be whoever they are.

  4. December 17, 2013 at 4:44 pm —

    Well, there is something about a child who defies gender-norms vs. one who follows them even if that means they want the exact same thing (yes, i was annoyed when my daughter insisted on the pink swim-glasses but I happily bought them for my friend’s son. I still bought the pink ones for my daughter, too). Because there is nothing in the toy as such (in many toys. Some are just crap, on both sides of the aisle) that makes it good or bad.
    I cringe, I wince, I sometimes despair at my kids’ mostly stereotypical gender-performance. I try to give them more opportunities and it breaks my heart to see how limited their worlds have become. But I don’t take it out on them. They are not failures for wanting to belong to the gender-group they identify with and there actually isn’t anything in a pinkish unicorn that makes it an inferior toy. We like unicorns, unicorns are cool. And so are dragons.

    • December 18, 2013 at 10:19 am —

      That’s it, right? It’s not their fault they like what they like.

  5. December 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm —

    I found this so easy to relate to. I live in a super progressive neighborhood where most parents dress our kids gender neutral and then cower in shame when our daughters start wanting to wear fancy dresses and tiaras. We do have to let our kids be who they are.

    • December 18, 2013 at 3:49 am —

      I think the problem is that just because it’s their “choice” doesn’t mean it’s their “free choice”. I remember a quote from Peggy Orenstein who nailed it (not the actual quote): There’s a multi-billion dollar industry out there telling my daughter 24/7 how to be a girl, but I’m not allowed to have an opinion on these things because then I’m suddenly not letting her be who she is?
      Not wearing a fancy dress and not liking pink and playing with trucks comes at a hefty price for girls these days.

    • December 18, 2013 at 10:19 am —

      My neighborhood is very very similar. I actually started to get embarrassed at the park because other mums would say, “Oh he’s playing with the trucks again?” and I felt like I was being judged.

      And I loved Peggy Orenstein’s book. I have said multiple times that I’m relieved E. is not a girl. I feel like there are so many more landmines, and the princess culture (to an outsider at least) looks suffocating.

  6. fossilfishy
    December 17, 2013 at 9:03 pm —

    As a toddler my daughter’s favorite colour was black. She wanted her room in the house we were building to be black, we bought a black towel to make bath extraction easier, we joked about what she would do as teen, and then she entered kindergarten.

    Some time in that first month or so her favorite colour switched to pink. Preschoolers have a culture too. I shouldn’t have been surprised at this change, but I was.

    She’s now six, and despite stating that her favorite colour (sic) is now “Green, purple, blue and pink.” I still have occasion to say:

    “You know honey, I don’t care that your favorite colour is is pink. That’s your decision to make. But I want you to know that it doesn’t *have* to be pink.”

    “Yes Dad. I *know*.” [six year old eye roll] “How many times are you going to tell me?”

    “As many as it takes honey, as many as it takes.”

    If I’m not going to be an authoritarian asshole then these sorts of decisions have to be up to the her no matter how young and easily influenced she might be. My role is to make sure that she’s fully informed of all her options, and to have her back regardless of where her choices fall in the spectrum.

    It’s all I can do because at this age I value her autonomy, where it’s possible to grant it, over fighting the weight of our gendered culture. There will be time enough and more to get into that after she’s realised that Dad was right about fairies, Santa Claus and The Robot Lion Mouse.*

    *Her version of the boogeyman, an all purpose go-to for when she’s feeling a little unsure in the night and needs company.

    • December 18, 2013 at 10:16 am —

      It’s a fine balance- the need to respect their autonomy while also remaining aware of the juggernaut of our gendered culture. But I can’t *make* him play with a doll, no matter how much I wish he would.

  7. December 18, 2013 at 7:49 am —

    Oh man I am so excited for this new part of Skepchick. I have been pumped since it was announced! Thanks to all you awesome Skepchicks!!

    In a large part I have gone through the same cycle on boys/girls toys. My conclusion at this point, in regard to GoldieBlox, is I think it is needed. The fact that it is marketed toward girls isn’t right, but the need is greater than that. In my humble opinion of course. I have two kids, Girl – 6 and Boy – 4. Every time I walk down the pink aisle I get aggravated. I don’t want my daughter to be forced into a life of pink. Same with the destructo toys for my son. I think i have done a fantastic job so far with my daughter. She has chosen to be frilly pink princess dressup girl while playing Skylanders or watching Ninjago. I have not forced her into any of that, just laid the options down to her and let her choose. My son, on the other hand, has gone completely ‘boy’. Trains, trains, trains, and maybe some angry birds.

    • December 18, 2013 at 10:18 am —

      I appreciate your perspective. I think the toy could have been great- it’s just the marketing of it that frustrates me.

      When my son was 18 months we ran into a dad with a three year old. He asked how old my son was, laughed, and said, “Get ready to spend a ridiculous amount of money on trains.”
      How right he was.

  8. December 18, 2013 at 7:51 am —

    I just re-read my comment…. boy it is just a mashup of words. I think I just have too much to say on this topic while wanting to keep it concise. Ha.

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