Children, Toys, and Social Conditioning

Ok, I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I have to prioritize my writing and choose carefully when I allow myself to become truly angry at something because otherwise I’d have blood pressure through the roof. This is one of the times when I found myself so swathed in disgust-anger that I couldn’t not talk about it, no matter how much time passed between the original outrage and my getting around to finally addressing it:

Children, Toys, and Social Conditioning.

In particular, this amazingly well sourced article written by Foz Meadows at Shattersnipe which thoroughly dresses down James Delingpole and his ridiculously flawed argument that nature has dictated that girls love pink and aspire to housework and motherhood, while boys love blue and aspire to destruction and violence, and that anyone who dares suggest otherwise is a sad excuse for a hobby social engineer, fighting desperately against the natural order for some political purpose, all at the expense of the children. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Delingpole’s theory of gender norms is so full of sexist conjecture and hypocrisy it’ll make you want to punch a kitten, right in its fluffy face, just to vent some anger.

To summarize for those who don’t have the time to read Meadows’s lengthy beat-down, Delingpole suggests that, in a social vacuum, girls will always become pink clad mothers, and boys will always become blue clad scientists, soldiers, builders, etc. therefore it is completely normal for girls to be interested in pink and domestic toys, and boys to be interested in blue, science and war toys. He makes this assertion while completely ignoring the fact that the world in which children live is dominated by social cues that reinforce a strict binary gender in both the color and activities that are deemed appropriate for either sex. This is akin to my growing an apple tree in a ten gallon pot, observing that it doesn’t grow higher than my shoulder and ergo assuming that, in absence of my care, all apple trees will grow no higher than a man.

Parents, teachers, peers, and all forms of conventional media tell children from a very early age how they should look, act, and play. When we tell children with our actions that boys can’t like pink and that girls are bad at math and science, we are filling their previously empty sponge-minds with what they will eventually use to form their framework for the world. You can’t tell me that children are making choices separate from what is being hammered into their brains, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not.

Here’s the thing: playtime is training. It’s teaching children how to interact with their world and the people around them. It’s preparing them for future interests and careers. It’s explaining to them how the world works. Now tell me how it is fair that girls are being told that their pre-approved life is narrowly defined as motherhood, shopping and beauty products? How is it fair that boys are told they can’t shouldn’t step away from trucks and trains, building and destroying? What we are telling children when we draw a line through the playroom, girls on the right, boys on the left, is that boys and girls are different, so different they are completely incompatible, almost a separate species. Almost as if men were from Mars, and women were from Venus.

This is my argument, from the bottom of my feminist heart: if girls want to play with Barbies and boys want to play with Transformers, then the more power to them, but we have to stop teaching children, directly or indirectly, that they can’t cross the line and play with their differently sexed sibling or schoolmates’ toys. We need to reinforce that children of all sexes and genders walk a single path, not a divergent one. Toy companies that insist on making their products specifically for girls and specifically for boys are undermining this goal. Profits for them mean forcing parents to buy different toys for brothers and sisters and pushing the idea that the two can’t mix.

I was fortunate growing up to have a large number of toys. Looking back now and comparing what we children enjoyed to what the actual income and expenses of our household must have been—let’s just say I’m very grateful. I have a younger sister and a younger brother in that order, and we’re all spaced four years apart, so the gap between me and my brother isn’t insignificant. It’s pretty safe to say that for the  first eight years of my life, we had some fairly girly toys. I remember dressing up Barbies, creating elaborate animal towns with Littlest Pet Shops, and having parades with My Little Ponies before they became creepy and anorexic.

When my brother was born, things changed. Suddenly there were cars in the house. Hot Wheels and Tonka, monster trucks, fire engines and airplanes. When my brother was old enough not to choke on tiny pieces anymore, he was given a Hot Wheel a week. My sister and I raised a stink until we got in on this Hot Wheel toy bag. I think my dad was relieved that we weren’t asking for anything more expensive. I still remember my favorite: it was a plum colored, ’78 Chevy that turned green in warm water. I loved that little car to death.

Everything was cars for my brother. At around the time he switched from the crib to a bed, his room was decorated with car posters and model cars. His toy box was a collection of construction vehicles and racers. As I was heading into my middle teens, and my brother was beginning to come into his own personality and interests, I remember wondering if he really did like cars that much, or if he liked them only because that was the only thing he’d been exposed to. He’s twenty now, and still likes cars and engines and things that go vroom, and I still don’t have an answer. I think about my first imaginary friend: it was a car. I know this because my parents still can’t figure out why I had a talking imaginary car friend, but I know my mobile as a baby was of fuzzy plush cars, so maybe that had something to do with it. My point is, kids are impressionable, and the things that we as adults and society show them can impact them in ways we can’t predict.

Aside from the Hot Wheels, I don’t remember specifically asking for any one toy in particular (though I do remember waking from a nightmare in the middle of the night and tearfully confronting my parents with the accusation that ‘daddy ate all my toys’) so I emailed my mom and asked to pick her memory. The following is a cleaned up version of our conversation:

Me: Hey mom, I was just wondering if you remembered what kind of toys I played with as a kid?
Mom: Toys? Jees, I don’t know. Barbies?
Me: Yeah, but there were others, right? I mean, I remember liking Littlest Petshop and stuff.
Mom: Oh yeah, and Polly Pocket!
Me: Yeah, Polly Pocket was cool until they made you have to dress her in those stupid rubber clothes. That was dumb.
Mom: Let’s see, what else. You guys played with a lot of stuffed animals. I don’t know, mostly you drew a lot. And read. You were really strange.
Me: Thanks mom.
Mom: You’re welcome, sweetie.

There are two toys that I remember distinctly from my childhood. The first was Bayko, a brick toy that allowed children to build elaborate structures with tiled shingles, picket fences, windows with removable plastic panes, paved sidewalks and more. My sister and I fought tooth and nail over this toy that was passed down from my uncle to us, and I ended up victorious when I secreted it away in my room until she forgot about it. Long hours were spent building, destroying and building again.

Bayko 2 Bayko

Hey, look! There are boys and girls on that box! Funny, that.

The second toy that stands out in my mind was the Science Fair, 150 in 1 Electronic Project Kit. With a handful of wires connected to the right springs, you could make a whole host of light and sound combinations, from dying cat to ambulance from your nightmares. To be fair, the kit was really, really old, and I’m fairly certain that most of its components had corroded over time, but it didn’t stop me from trying every combination in the instructions and then some. This was, in short, a cool ass toy. A non-pink science toy that was way, way cooler than dressing up Barbie.

Science_Fair_150_in_1_Electronic_Project_Kit_df6c2346701f089aaa14_1It even came with a morse code clicker, for when the nightmare ambulance was summoned from the bowels of hell by your determined tinkering with electrical engineering.

The thing is, in the absence of anyone telling them what they should and shouldn’t play with, kids will play with whatever toy looks interesting, and we should be encouraging them to try a large range of toys and activities, to find what best suits them. Are some kids better at sports than others? Absolutely. Can we pick out those kids with a line through the sexes? Of course not. The same holds true for science, math, humanities, home economics, etc.

But again, the problem isn’t that girls are incapable on their own of being interested in science, or that boys are incapable of being interested in domestic care, despite what some people claim. The problem is how we’re teaching boys and girls to think about their world through completely different lenses. Boys are taught violence is good, caring is bad, and girls are taught that everything has to be about being pretty (and increasingly, thin, but that’s a whole other rant).

In a 2011 article, Phil Plait discusses his unease with a toy company selling differently gendered chemistry sets for boys and girls. As one would expect, they were separated into blue and pink, and while the boy set explored such science concepts as basic rocket propulsion, deep sea exploration and joke soap, the girl set explored the science of mystic crystals, the beauty spa, and perfume. Not only does this perpetuate the stereotype that ‘real science’ isn’t for women, it reinforces the idea that little girls—and women–ought to only concern themselves with being pretty. While the situation is improving in regard to the gender gap  in STEM fields, there remains a disproportionately larger amount of men in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Historically this has been played off as women simply not having an interest in these fields, or being mentally unable to compete with their male counterparts. This is absolutely untrue.

Chien-shiung_Wu_(1912-1997)_(3)Deny women a science education for centuries [check]
Steal the credit from the ones who slip through [check]
Claim that women have never been all that interested in science [check]
– The Patriarchy

The perception that science and technology are a man’s field makes it harder for women to enter it themselves. Toys that reinforce women’s exclusion from science don’t help this.  To quote Phil Plait’s article:

…I’ll … readily admit that there may very well be differences between the ways boys and girls see the world. If that’s the case, I have no problem with a company, teacher, or parent accepting that and using it to help the child learn. In other words, science is the same for everyone, but how we get people interested in it and learning about may vary from demographic to demographic.

But I don’t think that’s really the issue here. The problem here is these girls’ kits all are almost entirely marketed on the idea that girls should be pretty, or should try to make themselves pretty.

So again, the problem isn’t that one set is blue and one is pink. The problem is that girls are being taught that their looks take first priority in their lives. This isn’t an innate behavior. We’re handing our little girls toys which are blatantly different than those of boys and telling them, “this is what you should be playing with. This is what matters in your life.”

Kids are incredibly complex little people. Parents face the constant challenge of ‘how do I raise this kid right?’ What works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another, and sometimes, despite all our best efforts, we’re still left with ‘where did I go wrong?’ As a teacher, I share in part of the responsibility to see that children grow with the right messages of cooperation and responsibility in their minds. We don’t allow bullying of any form. Accidents are followed by apologies, and one on one explanations on why it’s wrong to hit are frequent.


We also have some policies on toys. No war toys, no toys from home (it distracts the entire class), no characters (Disney, TV, etc), and no pink.

That last one happened mostly by accident. No characters rules out a large portion of the girl doll market, which is entirely pink; our first priority goes to buying educational toys which are rarely pink; and finally, girls tend to get very territorial over pink, which conflicts with our no bullying rule. Many girls see pink as their refuge, the unencroached zone of the female. They are told through aggressive marketing that pink segregates a thing as feminine, and they viciously mock any boys who request pink anything. Pink is girl territory, no boys allowed. Which is silly. Pink is a color; it’s not owned by any group of people, and the fact that girls feel they must defend it as their one and only identity marker is troubling.

I’ll admit, the above makes it sound as though we’ve maliciously stamped out all traces of pink from our classroom, from crayons to stuffed animals—we haven’t. One of our classrooms is entirely pink (different rooms, different colors). What we have done is removed the gender barriers that surround colors, the same way we’ve removed the barriers around playing with the toy animals (you’d be surprised how quick the girl students are to pick up toy snakes and spiders after observing their female teachers fearlessly diving into them). The point I’m trying to make is that in my classroom the toys are for everyone, be it a pink cat or a blue truck, and once the kids become comfortable with that, they all play together.

That said, there are definitely some favorites. The number one most requested toy in my class, by boy and girl students alike, is the Little People doll house:


After that, again, by both boy and girl students, it’s the kitchen set:


The Brio Trains and the foam building blocks tie for third most requested, with boy students requesting trains more frequently than girls:


Other popular toys include Potato Head, Safari Limited animals, mini cars, and anything to do with the alphabet.

IMG_0984I don’t understand why the alphabet is so much fun, but it makes my job easier.

Do I tell boys they can’t play with cars? No. Do I discourage girls from playing flower shop? Never. The kids can play with whatever they like, but I don’t want the girls to feel as though they can’t play with anything that isn’t domestic, and I don’t want the boys to feel as though they’ve committed a mortal sin in wanting the pink cup, or the pink ball or the pink marker. My classroom is inclusive. Everyone plays together, without any lines drawn through the playroom.

Want more on this subject? Chuck Wendig wrote a great article on his blog. (Strong language advisory.)

19 thoughts on “Children, Toys, and Social Conditioning

  1. Great article, N J. You wrapped it up very nicely. I was around for most of the composition phase, so you know how I feel (which is to say, I agree), and I’m really impressed by the entirety of it. Stellar.

  2. Did you know that pink used to be the designated color for boys? I forget when, exactly, it shifted to blue but, back when little girls and boys both wore little dresses, the boys wore pink. So, yeah, there’s nothing inherently girlie about pink other than that we say so.

    The first big thing my younger son was into was Transformers, which was probably my fault but not because I was trying to get him hooked on them. It was just one of the things I showed to my kids that I liked when I was a kid. When my daughter was in the 2-3 range, she got into My Little Ponies but, specifically, into the plushie ones. They had two of them that had come out (Pinkie Pie(?) and Rainbow dash), and they talked and stuff, and she really wanted one, so we got her one for her birthday. My younger son fell in love with it and we had to get him the other one. If I remember, they both kind of fought over the blue one, which ended up going to my son because he just did not want the pink one. They used to play with those together all the time… until my son took his to school for sharing time and some of the boys made fun of him (2nd grade, I think, so they played with those for a long time). He quit playing with it after that.

    Each of my kids started out predisposed to colors of their choice.
    Oldest son: bright yellows and oranges which had centered on yellow by the time he was about 5. (He’s 18, now, and I think it’s blue, now, which it has been for a while.)
    Younger son: he has always liked blue and still does
    daughter (youngest child): came out of the womb liking purple and, once she could walk, would try to follow people wearing purple clothes. After a couple of years in school, she added pink to that, but it was definitely social conditioning.

    By the way, my two younger kids playing with their ponies together was one of the sweetest things ever, and I have always regretted letting him take it to school for sharing.

    They also (all three of them) spent quite a bit of time being into Neopets and collecting Neopets plushies, which we still have.
    The ponies, though, have ended up with their cousin. She fell in love with… one of them… when she was here one time, and no one had the heart to not let her take them both home with her.

    • Yup! I knew that. So much for natural inclinations toward pink. What’s more natural is the desire to fit in. If everyone in your class likes pink, well, you don’t want to be the outsider, right?

  3. I have 4 older brothers, so I probably got the brunt of it, but we used to play together with our toys, me with ponies, my older brother with ninja turtles. My youngest plays with his sister’s dolls, and she plays with his legos, and I’m with you on that–they should be free to play with whatever they want, not limited by gender.

    • I wish we had more Legos when I was a kid but even back then they were really expensive. We had off brand Legos for a while, but the bricks only came in five types, which was kind of boring. I think the saddest thing about toys that are marketed strictly for girls is how limited play time actually is. Shopping and accessories is usually about the whole of it which is, from experience playing with those toys as a child, an extremely limited playtime activity.

  4. From the bottom of my feminist heart I too loved this post !
    Truly Y to discriminate what they hav to choose ?
    It will take a long time to change others thought process but we can be a part of the change for sure
    Lovely post @Njmagas

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I think it’s hard for us not to see our children as small, identical copies of ourselves, who will always think and feel exactly the same as we do. Of course, there will always be lessons that we want our children to learn from us, but at the same time, they need to be able to grow on their own as well.

      Parenting is a difficult occupation, for sure.

  5. What an awesome article. I can never understand how anyone believes that men and women are meant for specific roles. That all women will be mothers or want to be mothers or even be good at being mothers, etc. That way of thinking baffles me. 🙂

    • Yeah, me too. From a very young age I knew that I didn’t want to have children. To be told by everyone around me that it was “just a phase” was irritating. Not every woman wants to have children, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

      Glad you liked the post! Thanks for coming by.

  6. I love this post and agree completely! I always loved my Barbies but hated that her whole world was pink. I don’t even like pink. I don’t want to be defined by any style, color or attitude. I raised four boys and when my oldest wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid baby, my only concern was for the price of the highly popular toy. He wanted one so he could have a baby to care for. Perhaps if we allowed our children greater freedom of expression we would have more nurturing fathers and women who did not feel so insecure and needy because they were never taught to do some basic survival practices. Thanks for following my blog! All four of my sons know how to clean their homes, cook meals and do their own laundry. A person should not seek a partner based on a need for someone to do things for them.

    • I think we’re entering an age, or have already entered it, where boys are going to have it a lot harder than girls where gender is concerned. Women and girls already occupy and enjoy large areas of gender greyness, but social stigma still prevents boys from making that same transition. If a little girl wants to dress like a construction worker for Halloween, for example, people will ‘ooo’ and ‘ah’ how cute her little hammer and dirtied cheeks are. If a little boy wants to dress up like a princess, however, he’d be subjected to ridicule by his peers and his parents accused of using him for some sort of cruel, sociopolitical purpose.

      Glad you liked the post!

  7. Well said! There is such a spectrum of interests and aptitudes that it’s destructive to limit and categorize. I gave my niece a Tonka dump truck when she was small, and when the nephews picked up dolls, we acknowledged that they might grow to be good fathers like their dad.
    Your students are very lucky to have you.

    • Thank you! My students (my older ones, anyway) might disagree. They call me ‘aku-sensei’ (evil teacher) because I give them weekly challenges to beat. Once they get into it though, they never want to leave my class. 🙂

  8. I love hearing that there are teachers out there like you who are trying to address this issue in their own classrooms and help their students at least learn that there isn’t an inherent gender divide.

    Someone mentioned this previously, but most people don’t know or remember that all children regardless of gender used to wear dresses until a certain age (I think it might have been as old as 10 but don’t quote me on that). Not only was pink not always a girl color, dresses used to be unisex outfits!

    • Exactly. Biases are a learned behavior. With whatever control I have in my own classroom, at least, I’d like the kids to be comfortable being whoever they want to be, or playing with whatever they want to play with, whether that’s a kid wanting to be a dinosaur for a day or liking a certain color for a week.

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