M went to a friend’s birthday party yesterday. For some reason I find it easier to buy presents for little boys than for little girls (this was a girl’s party). Without knowing the child personally (and their likes and dislikes) I am always forced into the dilemma of whether to buy one of the very clearly gender-specific toys or to try to find something relatively gender-neutral. I usually opt for the latter if I can and this time settled on a board game. I hovered for a while torn between that and a Disney princess pets colouring book, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
The problem is this. I know that girls and boys can play with whatever toys they want and would not think twice about buying my sons “girls’ toys” if they wanted them (or even if they didn’t – against my husband’s evidentially better judgement I persuaded my mum to buy M a doll’s house last Christmas – he has shown exactly zero interest in playing with it, but then to be fair he shows zero interest in most of his other non-electronic toys). I don’t know what other kids’ parents think about this though and without knowing the child or the parents I don’t want to buy a “boys’ toy” for a girl or a “girls’ toy” for a boy in case they just think wtf is this? When they open it.
“But there’s no such thing as boys’ toys and girls’ toys” I hear you cry. I was raised with this same refrain in my ears: I remember the Christmas that my little brother got the same dolls as me and the weird science/motorised building toy my dad once bought me. I admire my mother for trying to raise us in a gender-blind way (and obviously shaping my thinking on the subject) but I think the wider culture is winning this particular battle.
How can I honestly say to my little boy that there’s no such thing as boys’ toys and girls’ toys when the local Morrison’s has sections labelled “Boys’ Toys” and “Girls’ Toys”: the former comprising Lego, Hot Wheels, and action figures and the latter dolls, kittens, and pink stuff. I still tell him that there’s no such thing as gender-specific toys, but to do so I have to go into an explanation of why there are toys aimed at boys and girls and about marketing strategies and all manner of other things that make his eyes glaze over.
What I find most pernicious is the prevalence of “girl versions” of regular toys. Lego Friends is a particular irritant. Lego is Lego; it does not need to be Polly-Pocketified. There are enough dolls out there without Lego jumping on the bandwagon. That being said, if anyone wants to play with Lego Friends then that’s fine, but it does make kids think there is “boys’ Lego” and “girls’ Lego” – another cultural construction for conscientious parents to unpick. Also the pink-and-purple versions of things such as car garages. The message being that it is ok for girls to play with “boys’ toys” so long as they are pink. (And yes, I realise this is the issue a lot of women had with Labour’s pink van – whether we like it or not, the colour pink is politicised).
I don’t have a daughter (yet) but when I do I will face the dilemma of whether to buy gender-neutral or “boys'” toys for her, or whether to give into the pink princess crap. Whichever choice I make will shape how she develops and thinks about toys and about the world, but more than that, the culture shapes this for kids anyway despite what we do as parents. Some girls love and embrace the pink princess stuff, but would they do so if it wasn’t rammed down their throats by the consumer culture? Some girls embrace so-called Tomboy-ism, but would they do this without conscientious parents trying hard to counteract the pink princess culture?
Perhaps the best plan is to introduce kids to all sorts of toys and to explain the marketing strategies (even if it does make them glaze over) and then let them choose what they want to play with and go with that. Some little girls love the girly stuff and as parents, why should we deny our kids what they want to play with?
In the absence of knowing a kid’s likes and dislikes, however, I am loathe to act as one more agent of the consumer culture, forcing them into the pink princess or tough guy mould. Which is why I put down the princess colouring book and chose the board game.