I grew up spending hours dressing my Barbies, agonizing over the perfect shoes and brushing their hair with that tiny comb. Hell, I had a life size playhouse dedicated to Barbies.
I also grew up yearning to play any sport that my brothers played. I remember once I was so excited to join my older brother’s soccer practice, it took getting smoked in the head THREE times before my dad could convince me to just watch the scrimmage. (I was a stubborn six year old.)
My younger years were filled with hairbands, sports, dress up, mud, dolls, and toy trucks. I was lucky to grow up in a home that promoted all types of play.
But a lot of kids don’t get the choice of how they play. All too often parents unknowingly shape the most important years of their children.
And can you blame them?
It is safe to say that major toy stores blatantly perpetuate gender roles.
The instant you step into a Toys ‘R’ Us, you are bombarded by stereotypes. Walk down a ‘boys’ aisle, laden with blues and greens, to see trucks and action figures and soccer balls. Turn the corner and you have a bright pink ‘girls’ aisle, boasting tea sets, Easy Bake Ovens, and Baby Born dolls.
From age one, girls are taught that their primary place is in the home; tending to the cooking and caring for the children. Conversely, boys are taught to strive for ‘manly’ occupations like fire fighters and construction workers.
These toys are certainly detrimental, but how we teach our children to interact with these toys is the biggest catalyst for patriarchal environments. In today’s society, the way children are taught to play completely socializes gendered behaviour.
Not only do we place specific toys in the hands of our children, but we also expect them to interact with these toys differently. When a girl has a doll, she is taught to care for it; to feed it, hold it gently, and give it love. If she drops the doll parents often say “Oh Susie, be careful of the baby, be gentle!” When a boy has a doll (a rarity in itself), parents simply laugh if he throws it across a room. If a boy choses to nurture a doll it is often seen as ‘weird’ or ‘effeminate’.
These points may seem insignificant, but I beg to differ.
From the moment children start interacting with toys, people and animals, they are gaining an impression of the world.
When girls only play with “Teen Mom Barbie”, society is telling them who they should be and what they should do. The message most companies sell to girls is: Focus first on your appearance, then your household duties, and, time permitting, your aspirations.
It doesn’t take long for girls to adopt these skewed priorities. Nor does it take long for boys to develop a narrow-minded definition of masculinity.
These gender stereotypes will not dissipate until parents stop passing them along to their children. The dominant paradigm will stay dominant if we perpetuate it to our children.
A boy will try to embody the patriarchal definition of a man until we promote gender-neutral toys. Girls will continue to believe they are beneath men unless we teach them that their place is anywhere they want it to be.
We live in a world where boys cannot wear pink or play dress up if they want to fit in at school.
We live in a world where Playskool can put out a “Rose Petal Cottage” commercial boasting, “Now there’s a place where her dreams have room to grow”, as a little girl does laundry.
I’ll be damned if my children grow up in that world.