Let The Kids Cook: Are Gender Preferences In Toys, More About Nature Or Nurture?
Toy Manufacturer HASBRO has created a non-gender specific Easy Bake Oven so boys can now equally partake in the joys of eating a gummy, half-baked cake cooked under a 100-watt light bulb.
I kid. I never had an Easy Bake Oven as a kid and was very jealous of the girl up the street from me, who regularly made gummy, half baked confections in her oven. Anyway, HASBRO made the announcement earlier this week that it will introduce more neutral colors including black, silver and blue to the line of children’s ovens, which currently come in pink and purple. According to published reports, the toy company introduced the new gender neutral colors after meeting with 13-year-old McKenna Pope, who launched a petition on Change.org on behalf of her 4 year-old brother, who always wanted an Easy Bake Oven but felt discouraged because of all the girlie packaging. In total, over 45,000 people signed the petition. HASBRO plans to begin selling the new non-gender specific ovens sometime next summer.
As trivial as it seems, demand for gender neutral toys appears to be a growing, particularly among some of the more socially progressive parents, who are conscious of the ways in which toys, and marketing of toys, might reinforce gender roles. And as in the case of Pope, sometimes it is the children, who revolt. Who could forget the video of little four-year old Riley Maida, who last Christmas took the toy companies to task for tricking girls into buying pink princesses?
As such many retailers have responded by introducing more inclusive versions of some of our old favorites. Some have been successful, such is the case of Mattel recently introduced Build ‘N Style Luxury Mansion, which will inspire girls to not only decorate but actually build their own Barbie dream home – hot pink hard hat sold separately. And other gender inclusive toys have not been as well recieved as in the case of LEGO, a Demark based company, recent launch of a new “girl friendly” version of its popular building blocks. These girl centered LEGOs, which came in colors of pink and purple and included mini-dolls, was nominated for the Worst Toy of the Year last month by Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood for being “so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush” Obviously the campaign is not aware that Barbie is building houses now.
And not just here in the States as just this year, Top-Toy, a licensee of Toys “R” Us in northern Europe, has begun publishing and distributing gender-neutral Christmas toy catalogs featuring images of girls playing with toy guns and boys playing with kitchen sets. And in some major department stores in UK, retailers have gone as far as to end segregation on its shelves through categorizing toys by interest rather than gender. The hope, of course, is that by removing gender-specific marketing from toy displays and advertising, children will not grow up feeling that they are limited to certain professional and domestic tasks, duties and careers.
It is a novel response to gender inequality in society however is nurture over nature in gender preference, for toys in particularly, really rooted in science?
While there is research, which suggests that parental influence might be a major motivating factor in how children choose toys, there are other studies, which offer more weight to the argument that our gender preferences might be more biological than societal. In a recent column for Psychology Today, Gad Saad provides several examples of studies where children identified sex preferences naturally, including children in their pre-socialized stages of cognitive development as well as little girls who suffer from congenital adrenal hyperplasia (i.e. born with ambiguous or underdeveloped sexual identities including organs).
Saad also writes, “Thus, work stemming from developmental psychology, comparative psychology, and endocrinology, using both non-clinical and clinical populations, and a wide assortment of dependent measures (e.g., eye gaze, digit ratio), points to an unassailable conclusion: the sex-specificity of toy preferences is shaped by sex-specific biological forces. This does not mean that parents do not reinforce these biological realities via various forms of socialization. However, it does mean that to the extent that nurture matters, it typically takes place within boundaries set by nature.
I definitely agree with that. I also agree that gender atypical play in boys and girls shouldn’t be seen as negative behavior in need of correcting. There is no harm in allowing children to explore all facets of themselves, especially in early childhood. If anything, those instances of gender atypical play is probably more damaging and traumatic for the parents, who are worried about what other parents/people think, than the actual child.