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Gender Stereotyping and Child’s Play

Another blogger raised an interesting point about gender stereotyping, the availability of toys to young children and whether this influenced them in any way.

With my own children, dolls were never much on the agenda.

The boys thought they were uninteresting as they didn’t do anything – which I guess is not all that surprising. For a very short while, one son played with an vintage doll that I myself had as a child, but it did not sustain interest for him. He preferred clocks and mechanical toys that he could pull apart and see cause and effect. The other boy was similar but did enjoy pretend paly with stuffed animals, preferably knitted by his Grandmother, but never dolls.

One afternoon when the boys were 6 and 3 years old, a school friend came over to play. He brought his Barbie doll with him. He had two sisters and we thought nothing strange about his Barbie doll.

When his Mum came and they left to go home, my eldest son found the friend’s Barbie doll tucked under the covers of his bed, propped up on his pillow. He was completely perplexed about why his friend was interested in the doll and what to do about it.

We phoned the Mum and let her know the doll was still at our house and that we would return the doll at school, the following day. She mentioned that her husband was very worried about her son and his penchant for Barbie dolls. We could not really see too much of a problem if he liked them.

Princess

My daughter was more interested in Teddy bears than dolls. I didn’t direct or stereotype her play, merely let her preferences dictate play, in the exact same way I had done with my sons, but would introduce things to her and let her take it from there. They would pick out their toys at the shop or at home. She never chose or wanted a doll. Bears were much like dolls in terms of imaginative playthings, anyways.

One day I noticed something interesting.

It was my practice to make little cardboard car ramps with my sons so that they could roll their toy cars up and down in a safe corner of our large country kitchen, whilst I was preparing meals or working. They loved this and they made all sorts of twisting and turning ramps with sticky tape this way and that. They played for hours rolling down various toy cars and trucks and loved the activity.

When my daughter was around 18 months or 2 years old, I grabbed some cardboard and made a small car ramp for her amusement, as the boys were off playing older boy games in the backyard, by then. When I rolled a toy car down this makeshift ramp and made a whooping sound when it rolled off the end, my daughter cast it a cursory glance, grunted a little and swiftly turned away to play with something else. The cars and ramp game held absolutely no interest for her.

It was a Eureka moment for me. “You are not like your brothers,” I thought. And I didn’t think I had any influence on that. I hadn’t conditioned her to like cars or to dislike dolls. We still had had the vintage doll in the cupboard, but she never voluntarily touched it. The boys were more interested in video games by the time she was independently playing, so perhaps if they were still playing with toy cars, she might have wanted to join in. Still, it seemed she spent more time playing with the toy kitchen, dress-ups or pulling plastic containers out of my storage cupboards engaging in pretend play.

But there was the collection of bears.

child with teddy bear

Each one had a different name, which sometimes changed from day to day or minute to minute. She might dress them up, give them tea parties or set up a bear wedding ceremony. Again, this had come out of her own imagination.

For birthdays, kindly friends or relatives would give my daughter a Bratz doll as a gift – the ones with the big eyes and curvaceous figures. The only time my daughter would touch them would be to cut their hair off pretending to be a hairstylist, after which the Bratz dolls would be ditched in the dark recesses of the toy cupboard, never to be seen again. She found them, ‘a bit creepy,’ she explained years later.

So whilst many psychologists or academics propose that parents instil stereotypes in children by guiding their play or limiting their toys, I don’t think I entirely agree. I do believe they make up their own mind according to their own personality preferences.

Do you see evidence of children following gender stereotypes in their play?

Has this changed?

Do you think children’s interest are dictated by nature or nurture?

55 thoughts on “Gender Stereotyping and Child’s Play”

  1. The genders generally start to differentiate as the children grow older is what we noticed. I am from Holland and my late wife from Finland, so none of that pink for girls or blue for boys ever featured in our household. However, the prevailing culture in Australia tends to differentiate the differences too early. Children are children not little women or little men.
    I would not limit their choice of toys at all. Of course there is more to sexes than males and females as well.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Great summation, Gerard. Children are children, and the Bratz dolls seemed to forget that in their design.
      I didn’t realize that many other places did not have the pink/blue baby clothes emphasis that we have in Australia. I wonder where that originated from?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As someone adopted who has met their birth parents in adulthood I would say for me that my adoptive parents encouraged me to do activities they related to, and some of which I very much enjoyed, but also quite a number of my favourite activities I share with my birth parents and my adoptive parents have never done or had any interest in. And then there are the things I do and none of them have in interest in!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I, being childless, am not in a position to say. But being the youngest of 4 girls for 9 years – when my little sister was born – I have some trouble remembering any dolls at all .. I know we had a SUPER Hornby train set, that the next one up from me and I used to play with a lot . But the only activities I can really remember were playing outside in the garden or down on the beach (our house’s property went right down) – like, playing games, you know ? There being no boys, our parents simply left us to our own devices; so how we filled our times was definitely not by ‘nurture’.
    So my vote is that Mother Nature takes us all in hand, provided that we are not hand-held by out parents !

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There you go – a perfect example of Nature left alone by the nurturers and that led you girls to build your own childhood games. It may have made your more resilient or it may have made no difference, but it sure sounds like you had a lot of fun. I remember a childhood like this, very little time spent indoors. Mostly outdoors and with the children in the street, a great training ground for getting along with others.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Beady Eyes is an awesome name. You should hear the names my daughter and her cousin came up with for the bears – including Horseradish, PinkyNuttyNeedy, Heddy, Pain …… their imagination knew no limits.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Amanda, an interesting article! πŸ˜€ I think it is a bit of nature and nurture. Although I’ve grown up in the U.K. and raised my son here, I think I adopted the more fluid Swedish style regarding gender toys and clothing! I detested how everything had to be blue and made sure there was lots of red, yellows and other colours in his cupboard. As for toys, I must admit he gravitated towards cars and toys, in spite of my attempt to draw him into the magic world of barbie. He did love his teddies, over a hundred by the time he was a teenager and everyone named and with individual characteristics. Oh, the adventures we had with them as we travelled the world and beyond on the magic carpet! πŸ˜€

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I remember hearing a mother say that a child never learnt anything from a soft toy, but you and I are here to dispute that for it sounds like your son was like my daughter with the bears. Although he wins the prize for the most – I think she might have only had up to 20!
      I like that you also balanced his wardrobe out with reds and yellows. There isn’t a lot of choice with boys in clothing here, at least not when my boys were small. Is Uk more a pink/blue delineated society for children? That must be where Australia got the idea from?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We lived in Burma when our girls were 5 and under. Toys weren’t really available. I think textas, paper, old sheets, sofa cushions, saucepans, wooden spoons and books were their favourites. I have great pictures of sofa-cushion boats in the lounge room.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haha! All my kids did that – constructed obstacle courses with furniture, cardboard boxes, cubby houses and caves with sheets and the boys loved books, not so much my daughter. The eldest one loves puzzles too. Wonderful imaginative pretend play. Lot of fun for parents too. I hadn’t considered the lack of toys as compared to that available in the developed world. I think that might still be the case. The market isn’t there for kid’s toys like it is here in the Western countries.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My brother in law was horrified that our 1 year old son enjoyed pushing a baby doll round in a toy pushchair. As a mum of a boy and a girl who worked from home as a childminder for the first few years of their lives, we had a wide range of toys. The children all loved role playing – copying their adults. Some loved organising toys into groups by colour, some loved jigsaws when others hated them. The most popular items were big cardboard boxes which could be turned into anything and the sand/water play.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Big cardboard boxes are the best playtoy. We used to have a large fridge box that became a tunnel for quite some months, and the outside was decorated by the kids with all manner of things. And I agree about some kids liking jigsaws and other not. We amassed quite a collection of puzzles when the first child showed great interest, thinking that another child is coming along so they can use them too. The second one never went near a puzzle! Funny, hey? But all three loved the cardboard boxes. Did the brother-in-law even have children? I wondered if he became more flexible after that?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes it goes the other way too. Some girls may love toy cars. My brother had a large collection and I was only ever allowed to play with two of them – the two he didn’t like so much. A caravan and a small tractor. Funny. I don’t think I was that interested in them, but they were a little more attractive as they were something I could not touch.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. When my second son was 2, he asked me for a baby brother. He said his brother has him but he has none. I knew a friend who gave her own son a baby alive doll and he played with it until he no longer wanted to and there was never a problem so i brought my boy a little infant doll. He called it his baby brother. When my daughter was born, he came to the hospital with his dad and brother and Minmin (his doll). He went straight to his sister’s crib and placed the doll beside her. He said his sister can have it now. He no longer needs a baby brother because he has now a baby sister but maybe his baby sister needs a baby brother too. The boy is now 13, likes to ride bikes, hangs out with his pals, and does all the boy stuff. Toys doesn’t define us. It’s just something we play with. That’s what i think at least :))

    Liked by 6 people

    1. What a beautiful story, Zee. And what a darling your little boy was to think about his sister in that way. The doll provided companionship or comfort perhaps for him for a time for some reason. Nothing more than that.Toys don’t define us. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for taking the time to leave such an interesting comment. Did he choose the name Minmin?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not really.. I might have pushed too hard and had it been the dad it might have worked better but mom pushing sons is a little different and pushing to hard they might not have wanted the disappointment thing.. πŸ˜‰ they took to skateboarding.. mom can’t be involved.. πŸ˜‰

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  8. Growing up my parents bought dolls and “girl items. I used them yet I enjoyed tracks and horses and playing outside. I had a set of dishes and a kitchen set I used. I was a daddy’s girl. My dad was raised on a farm and I still like that living. My opinion girls need the feminine life and boys need the male toys of trucks, tuff stuff.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Do they need this or should we be guided by what they naturally drift towards? Does a parent step in and deliberately stop a boy playing with dolls, or realize it may be just a temporary interest – modelling a sister’s play for example as in the case of my son’s friend? I don’t think we can be authoritarian about toy choice. The children would then view it as if they had done something wrong.

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  9. Interesting to hear your thoughts since your kids are already (more or less) grown up 😊 I’ve noticed that the boys are very influenced by what they learn at daycare, ie the toys/shows/figures that other kids like and talk about/wear on their shirts. They talk about these things at home. Recently, daycare had an insect theme for a whole month and my boys (as well as the other kids) were super enthusiastic about bugs. The next month it was dinosaurs and the same thing. If presented in a tempting way, anything can be appealing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good point, Snow.
      Young children are influenced by toys or items of interest around them whether presented in an educational or play based way. I remember first graders being super enthused about bugs when they were learning a unit on ‘Mini beasts,’ (insects). The education system here runs on themes – so each term they centre all lessons around a particular theme and tie maths, english or art lessons to that theme. It is little wonder the children here talk about the theme all the time. The theory is that children learn better if they ‘theme’ the lessons. I don’t know about that. I would get so bored with that theme by the end of term, I would hate it if I were a child. Our lessons were very different, years ago. I liked learning loads of different things.
      I also think that if the teacher planned a topic a child had no interest in, they are a bit stuck with it, which doesn’t enhance learning as much.
      Popular trends do have a big influence on child’s play. The latest fad toy Bayblades ( a spinning toy) or Pokemon were huge in my sons’ era. Interestingly, the older boy was pretty much unaffected by fads but the younger one was totally sucked into them. I wonder if by picking up the latest fad it can be a way of the child fitting in to what everyone else was into (in an unconscious sense – for they are far too young to do it deliberately). Or is it the item itself so attractive to a child that it grabs their attention more as it is a lot of fun playing with an object together with other kids – ie the co-operative and community play?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve never liked the stereotype promoted by dools, so I never bought them for my girl. Instead she had stuffed animals which she loved. Similarly but less so, by my son. Toy cars, trucks & trains on the other hand, were magnets to my boy. I’m not sure what it is about autos but they seem to have universal appeal to boys. Some never grow out of it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I do believe there is something so appealing about cause and effect toys to boys. And you are right, Sandy, some boys never grow out of it. They still like playing around with engines and football. My sons weren’t really ever into football or cars apart from those early years, yet one son showed great interest in mechanical engineering, then got into computers and the rest of the world fell away for him then. He wasn’t interested in anything else. The second one played football here and there acouple of times, but I think he tried to like it for social reasons, but it just wasn’t him. He is a musician and creative, so you can imagine he doesn’t mix with football-mad men today.
      So, despite both of them being so involved in playing with cars, trucks and machines and construction toys for hours and hours when they were young, they did not carry that through to their adult life in the same way other boys do.
      I think the point about the stereotype of certain dolls is awful and it is interesting that no one else has raised this. That is why I was glad my daughter wasn’t interested in them. The only dolls she did have were given to her by others, and I can understand her reluctance to engage.
      I didn’t even like Barbie dolls when I was a child. I was frustrated that they were so ‘pointy and unrealistic.’ The Barbie doll of the sixties, had very pointy boobs and pointy toes. She didn’t stand up herself and she had grey hair – so to the six year old me, she didn’t look natural and this put me off a bit. I think I enjoyed changing around her outfit but that was about it. I suppose I should have kept her – she might have become a valuable museum object now! Lol!

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      1. Further on the topic of stereotype … there are a few things that disturb me about dolls like Barbie. 1) the image they portrayed on what’s beautiful and what’s important and 2) how they promoted acquisitiveness.

        From my own childhood, I remember the fascination and envy associated with Barbie dolls; certain types of dolls were more desirable than others and getting more stuff was important – outfits, accessories, house, car, boyfriend doll etc. etc. All very superficial and materialistic. It wasn’t only true of Barbies. Remember Cabbage Patch dolls? American Girl dolls? etc etc. Parents would get into fights at stores to get the latest so-so for their kids. Stuffed animals at least, bypass the preconceived notions of beauty & the acquisition syndrome is less, although not entirely missing (remember Beanie Buddies?)

        Kids playtime often reflect their environment and how they see their world. No wonder then that they want to pretend to be mother or big brother. I hate those toys that take a simple need and distort it into something within a warped reality.

        I’ll stop here, this is more than I even want to write a blog post on. If I don’t get off this soap box, I’ll go on to something I feel strongly about … toddlers & electronic devices!

        Good topic Amanda. Lots of opinionated discussion.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I can see that there is a raw nerve buried there, Sandy. A raw nerve that I think IS justified in many ways.
          I do remember Cabbage Patch Dolls, although we never had one and the other ones you mentioned never made it into my zone. I dislike American fads/fashion trends toys and merchandise for the most part so the Disney characters didn’t really rate in my house and I only let the children watch the educational children’s shows that did not have that ads targeted at children.
          The exception was the Small Soldiers/ Action Man Doll my son bought one with some Christmas money one year. He must have been about 6 or 7 and had received quite a bit of money from a few different family members who thought the children could choose their own Christmas gifts as it was easier that way (for them). I am not really a fan of giving money as gifts to children. Anyways, this year we let the boys choose whatever they wanted with their Xmas money – $50 in total for a little boy old was a lot of money in 1998. We showed him various things he could buy, but he spied the doll. It would use up all his money and he would get nothing else besides this doll whereas Older brother had a few things he was getting with his share of the money. We explained that to him but he still chose to get that one doll, which he was bored with pretty quickly. For some years, he regretted not buying a Lego kit like Older brother. It was a hard lesson for him, one that I am not sure he has completely grasped even as a 27 year old. But he did learn something out of it. I think the Small Soldiers Doll would have been something that fitted your description of the things you dislike about dolls. We didn’t like the doll either, but it goes to show how impressionable a movie can be on a young child and peers – his friend was right into action man dolls.
          Kids that are prone to obsessions appear to get sucked into the latest Disney/Toy fads more than others and unfortunately, parents inadvertantly might encourage this.
          As for devices, when you see a toddler trying to swipe/tap a real picture book as you would an ipad, things have gotten out of hand.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m with you on this, Amanda. Let them decide themselves what to play with. We grew up with no toys and for the most part, so did my children. Each year on birthdays or Christmas, they had to give away things that were no long dear to them in order to acquire anything new. Usually one or two things that were not a necessity. My children always directed their own play. My son was in love with riding toys or books. My daughter never exerted that much energy so she simply had a bear or two and lots of books. Art supplies were a favorite. Board games came later when my daughter quit cutting up her brother’s games. He wanted things you could take apart and put back together. Still does. She wants nothing domestic so it’s still art supplies and books or jewelry. She loves bling. No pink or blue for either. I loved watching them become themselves to see how they developed their interests. My son loved music, my daughter has no interest in making it, just enjoying it. I’m ready to see all the boxes go that they want to put us in.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. A lovely mantra, Marlene. I am ready to see all the boxes go that they want to put us in. How interesting the world would be if we were all unboxed. I was wary of boxing and pigeonholing as it limits expectations so much.
      Self-directed play with ordinary materials that are found naturally around us is really the only toys children absolutely need. A child may become more creative if they aren’t presented with a finished product. I tried to encourage any kind of open-ended play although my kids did have plenty of toys, probably too many as some they never touched at all. In my toy cupboard there were always books and puzzles, thinking and fine motor toys, always an art box and cars etc. We always had reading every night before bed and many time through the day. A play environment can be rich with or without expensive toys. What I worry about is seeing young kids with devices! That is truly scary. They are only interacting with their eyes and minds, not their bodies! Toddlers in strollers staring into Mum’s phone and a computer animation is a different world.

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  12. My 2 treasures boy & girl were outside most of the time having adventures in the garden, we had chooks a dog a cat & eventually a horse. They had a awesome cubby house, dolls weren’t high on the list nor were cars. But we did have to help visitors find their shoes my son loved every ones shoes. The kids would spend time with Grandma who lived in an attached Granny flat, doing craft stuff & science experiments. Whatever they wanted to play really.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. It sounds like a rich upbringing, Linda. Outdoors stuff and a bit of craft and science! A glorious childhood. Interestingly, they probably didn’t have any need or time for dolls and cars. Shoes? My daughter was really into them for a while, wearing everyone’s shoes, mainly mine, but the boys weren’t interested in shoes at all. I think they have very few pairs, just the bare minimum today.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think nurture is sometimes blamed for a larger part, whilst nature is also credited with a genetic predisposition towards certain personality traits. We are such complex beings it cannot be completely one or the other or even a 60/40 split or vice versa as used to be thought. It must vary greatly from person to person. Adding to the complexity is that there is now differences in the way genes are expressed in the offspring of people living certain negative life experiences.

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  13. Interesting post with many important ideas, Amanda. I spent my career in early childhood education and this was always a hot topic among teachers. In my personal experience, I believe it’s a little bit of both. The child has his or her own natural interests and are compelled by their own innate curiosity and I think adults either knowingly or unwittingly steer children in the direction of their interests or gender biases. There are very subtle things that go on in the classroom or at home that many people would not be able to pinpoint doing. We all have biases and it’s always best when there is honesty and awareness- something that you obviously discovered in raising your children. Great post and food for thought. It’s all coming back to me now as I help with my two granddaughters. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Firstly, I’m going to just say that the ‘pink’ aisles in toy stores makes me LIVID.

    I had three boys so I can’t really ascertain an accurate nature vs nature but the boys always had access to dolls, a kitchen, stroller, cot, etc as well as cars and trucks and more neutral toys like lego and building blocks. We were also big on games and puzzles which were always pretty gender neutral. The boys tended to use all things but I will say the middle son was the most attracted to the dolls and dressups, (I have a photo somewhere of him breastfeeding his doll when he was about two.) Interestingly, he recently told me that he feels very much that he would like to have kids one day. (He’s 21.)
    I just really feel it’s important to give all kids access to all things so they can make up their own minds. Who are we to say what boys or girls are ‘allowed’ to play with?

    Liked by 2 people

  15. My daughters enjoyed their dolls, their play-kitchen and so on, but so did my son. And he’s the one who as an adult spends the most time in the kitchen. So long as we don’t compartmentalise , and genuinely allow our children to choose their playthings on the basis of their interest, we probably won’t do a bad job.

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      1. I see stereotyping at all times. Sometimes parents dont realise they are doing it. However, this is slowly starting to change girls can now feel comfortable playing with construction toys or farm toys. Playing with dolls also us becoming less and less stereotyping. Great article.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Interesting that parents can do this subconsciously. I suppose I have been also guilty of that when I purchase a gift for a young cousin or relative – looking in the girls or boys section as appropriate. I don’t know them enough to know of their individual likes, so I just go generic with the gifts. Thanks for your valued comment.

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