There are toys that all children use, balls, puzzles, blocks, clay, crayons, board games, and there are “boy” toys and “girl” toys.
Some parents try to avoid stereotyped or sexist toys and allow their children to choose playthings from the full range available. But some parents are uncomfortable when their children play with nontraditional toys. These parents, who do not buy cars and action figures for their girls or baby strollers and tea sets for their boys, fear that playing with toys intended for the opposite sex weakens a child’s identification with his or her own sex.
Some parents may discourage their daughter when she acts like a “tomboy” or shows an interest in aggressive, supposedly masculine toys. But parents who pressure their child to follow traditionally feminine pursuits may limit her potential.
Parents of boys can also restrict their child’s development by demanding only masculine activities. Nursery-school and day care teachers often hear parents tell their sons that the classroom’s housekeeping area is “just for girls.” Yet there’s nothing wrong with a boy who wants to play house or dolls. Boys need to learn how to nurture, just as girls do, and an interest in playing house is normal.
Some parents who don’t mind if their children play with nontraditional toys still feel uncomfortable buying such toys. One mother was pleased that her son played with dolls at his friend’s house, but couldn’t bring herself to get him a doll when he asked. Similarly, a parent didn’t mind her daughter’s use of war toys in the neighborhood but resisted buying her a tank of her own.
Some parents who have children of both sexes encourage their sons and daughters to share toys, thus allowing non-traditional play. Other parents buy each sibling a few toys intended for the opposite sex so that brothers and sisters can play well together. One little girl had her own set of mini cars to use whenever her brother’s playmates came to the house. She joined in their games, and her parents avoided the struggles that come when one child is excluded.
When a child is under the age of three, he or she may be attracted to toys of interest to both sexes, but by the time children are three or four, they clearly identify which toys “belong” to which sex. One four-year-old girl noticed a two-and-a-half-year-old boy wearing nail polish and she began to question him about his interests: “Do you like Barbie? Do you like robots?” When he answered yes to both questions, she turned to her mom and said, “He’s girlish-boyish.”
Parents who encourage their child to play with whatever toys he or she likes, regardless of sex stereotypes, are often surprised when their child chooses the traditional “girl” or “boy” toys anyway.
Girls are drawn to dolls, toy houses, and dressing up, while boys are attracted to cars, superheroes, and space toys. Girls enjoy playing baby and house; boys like playing pirates, fire fighters, and spacemen. And all children become familiar with the “girl aisle” and the “boy aisle” in toy stores.
Certainly the media has a powerful influence. Advertisers clearly market their toys for a particular sex, and children rarely have a chance to see non-traditional play on commercials. But even considering the influence of television, children seem to have their own innate interests in typical, traditional play.
Given this strong drive girls have to play with “girl” toys and boys with “boy” toys, there’s no need to worry if your child shows an interest in toys for the opposite sex. And there’s no reason not to buy non-traditional toys if your child wants them.
In rare cases, parents might observe that their child seems particularly dissatisfied with his or her gender. A child who consistently tries to play and act like a member of the opposite sex may sense his or her parents’ disappointment (“I wish he’d been a girl!”), may be reacting to family stress, or may be influenced by genetic factors. If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, keep an eye on the situation, and in later years seek additional information and guidance on gender issues.