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September 1, 2014
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Kids Toys and Gender Stereotypes

Writer Holly Wall, the mother of two young boys, explores her feelings about gender stereotypes and how gender stereotype awareness is not just for girls.

Last month, Lego Group released a line of Legos for girls—pink and purple plastic building blocks called “Lego Friends” intended to increase gender-specific sales of the product. Lego Group’s CEO, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, told Bloomberg Businessweek in December: “This is the most significant strategic launch we’ve done in a decade. We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children.”

Immediately, parents of girls began responding via blogs and social media sites, specifically on Lego’s Facebook page. Many moms, especially, saw the new Legos as sexist and argued that girls could play with blue, yellow and red blocks just as easily as they could pink and purple ones.

Many of my friends who have daughters quickly jumped on the anti-pink-Lego bandwagon, and though I agreed with them, I didn’t initially think, as a mother of boys, that the issue concerned me.

I quickly changed my mind.

Gender stereotypes, even when they’re focused on girls, affect boys just as well. Although it’s a girl’s choice whether she plays with pink Legos or blue ones—or whether she plays with Barbie dolls or with Matchbox cars—I don’t want my sons to think that girls should only play with pink things, or that girls can’t do or be any of the things boys can do or be.

When you stereotype and marginalize girls, you’re not only affecting the way they see themselves, you’re also affecting the way boys see them. I believe boys who see girls as equals will grow into men who see women as equals. They’ll be more respectful of women in positions of power or superiority; they’ll be more likely to share in domestic responsibilities because they won’t see them solely as “women’s jobs.” That’s my hope, anyway.

After stumbling upon this conclusion while perusing the toy aisle at Target shortly after reading about the Lego controversy, I went back and read as many news articles and blog posts intended for “mothers of daughters” as I could. I’d skim them before, agreeing in spirit, the feminist in me rising up in solidarity, but I never considered taking them to heart and incorporating their teachings into my daily interactions with my sons.

Now, I do. And I’m also mindful of the gender stereotypes that insist boys be rough and aggressive, play with guns and swords, and only watch TV shows and movies where the central characters are also boys. It doesn’t bother me that my 3-year-old son prefers Dora over Diego, or that his favorite color alternates between pink and blue, or that his best friend at preschool is a girl.

I like that he’s gentle and sweet and that his best role models include both men and women. I don’t necessarily think that gender should be ignored completely, but I don’t think we should let it define us or our children. I think, if we encourage our children’s interests and passions, regardless of whether or not they fit the boy mold or the girl mold, we’ll raise talented, strong, encouraged people. If we raise our children to respect everyone, regardless of gender, race or any other difference, we’ll raise the best people we can.

 

Parents can begin sending healthy messages to their children early on. Here are a few suggestions from safeandrespectful.org:
DO:
1. Be aware of the gender messages communicated by the toys you give your child. Dolls aren’t just for girls. Trucks aren’t just for boys.
2. Read your child books that show different gender roles.
3. Model healthy gender roles in your home. Who says the woman has to fold the laundry?
4. Men have feelings too! Show your children it’s ok to cry, be afraid, and to worry.
5. As your children grow, ask for their point of view and have open conversations about gender roles and expectations.
6. Encourage both girls and boys to explore what makes them happy whether that is sports, music, science or video games.
7. Talk to them about different careers. Let them know that there are no limits to what they can do.
8. Set a standard in your home for what kind of language is unacceptable (put-downs, slang, etc.), hold children accountable, and model respectful gender language in your home.

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