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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?