How to Avoid Gender Stereotyping in Children's Toys

Do you always pick a pretty doll for your daughter or feel uneasy when your son chooses a baking set at the toy store? Beware. Gender bias when buying toys can restrict your child’s development

By Sahana Charan

How to Avoid Gender Stereotyping in Children's Toys

When Sushma and her two children visited the new toy store in their neighbourhood, they were impressed by the wide variety of books and playthings on display. Her eight-year-old daughter let out a squeal of delight when she saw row after row of toys to play with, while her five-year-old son busied himself with a farm set.

The sections were clearly marked with bright signs saying ‘For Boys’ and ‘For Girls.’ The little girl browsed for some time, then picked up a STEM toy and ran to her mother with much excitement. A little annoyed with her choice, Sushma snapped, “Are you even going to play with that? It will be difficult for girls to understand those instructions.”

Do you think that is the correct approach? Was Sushma right in thinking that her daughter lacked the ability to play with a tech toy? Definitely not. She just reiterated a bias that has been around for a long time -- that boys excel at the scientific stuff while girls are good at verbal skills. This stereotype is carried forward in adulthood, as men are presumed to play the tough roles, while women are categorised as being good at roles that involve empathy. 

Choosing the Right Toy 

Have you thought twice about picking up a truck or action figure for your son or the cooking set or jewellery kit for your daughter? Parents subconsciously get conditioned to choose gender-specific play material for their children because of the pre-conceived notions that they may have about how kids should grow up and how they should play. Toy manufacturing companies and stores bolster the stereotype by promoting gender-specific toys.

“I am very conscious of the gender stereotyping that happens in toy stores and feel that it restricts children’s play. So, I make it a point to buy gender neutral toys for my daughter Maya. I get her toys like superheroes and bikes,” says Sindhu S, mother of a two-year-old.

Toys that are not too structured and promote open-ended play are the best for any child, be it boy or girl. When a toy is gender-neutral, it allows a child to be creative while exploring different ideas, without being constricted by a particular kind of play. Parents should also avoid buying toys targeted at girls, which promote certain impossible standards of beauty and looks, which might make young girls feel inadequate about themselves.

The Let Toys Be Toys campaign, started on the online parenting platform Mumsnet by a group of parents, works to influence toy retailers to stop gender labelling of toys and to promote gender neutral toys for children. The campaign emphasises that kids should decide for themselves what they think is fun and that children need a wide range of play to develop different skills.

What the Experts Say

According to a study conducted by sociologist Elizabeth Sweet at the Sacramento State University in 2016, children need to be exposed to all kinds of toys to aid in their development. She explains that not allowing children to play with different toys severely limits their ability to develop a wide range of skills. This is also the reason why men continue to dominate in areas of science and technology, and women take up more nurturing roles. The sociologist reiterates that all toys have their advantage and children should be allowed to choose according to their interest -- building blocks are good for spatial skills while dolls teach language skills, so kids can engage with all of these.

“Children develop and explore their imagination, creativity, emotions and rules set by parents through play. And, toys are one of the important forms of play, where children can easily pick up and learn skills for their future. From a very young age (as early as 2 years), toys like building blocks, musical instruments, squeeze toys, puzzles and so on help children learn spatial (visual learning), cognitive (logical learning) and kinesthetics skills (physical learning). Children pick up social cues from their surroundings. By gender stereotyping a child’s toy, we unintentionally exploit and manipulate a child’s social skills and development,” says Geetapriya Manoharan, counselling psychologist.

Unlike an adult’s brain a young child’s brain changes a lot and keeps undergoing changes as they grow and pick up cues from their environment. This phenomenon is called neuro-plasticity. As a result of this, your child’s mind is impressionable when he is young. What your child learns now has a lasting effect on how he forms his ideologies, cognitive abilities and social skills, she adds.

Research shows that the trend of children’s toys being marketed gender specifically is quite recent. Despite gender bias being prevalent in daily life in the 1970s and 1980s, kids toys were more neutral then and it is only towards the early 1990s that these type of gender stereotypes became more pronounced.

Geetapriya gives important points on avoiding gender stereotyping:

  • When left to their own devices, children play with whatever they want and however they want to. Leave children alone with just a blanket and a few tumblers and spoon and just watch them turn it into something incredible.
  • As parents, we feel the need to do our best for our children. But, when we place a restriction on the child, based on what the society will say she plays with a toy that is not gender appropriate, you take away their imagination, creativity and their natural curiosity to learn things. This may also effect their self-esteem.
  • While choosing toys for children parents need to see whether it is age- appropriate and of interest to their child, instead of seeing whether it is gender-appropriate. Selecting age specific toys instead of gender specific toys will help children form healthy ideologies and identities.
  • Each child is different, and each child plays differently. If a boy child is quiet and likes to play with cooking sets. Let him. It may help in bringing out his nurturing side and will also let him to explore his emotions through role-play. Restricting him will make him upset. Along with other influences such as parents/authority figures, video-games and media, this will also reaffirm that only certain types of toys are for boys. And, from early on he may develop biased attitude towards girls and boys.

Tips for parents to avoid gender-stereotyping of toys

1.Give your child access to a range of toys without giving gender-specific inputs.

2.Let your child explore what he wants to play with, without being influenced by any bias.

3.Avoid giving a harsh or negative reaction when your boy picks a supposedly feminine toy and vice versa.

4.Encourage your little one’s choice regardless of what toy she is interested in. It will boost her confidence.

5.Avoid buying toys that promote impossible standards of beauty for girls and those that promote violence, particularly targeted at boys.

Play is important, no matter what the toy. Embrace inclusiveness in all aspects and teach your child to do that same.