Holiday gifts that challenge gender stereotypes can support children’s development

12 mins read

Each holiday season, gift-giving traditions offer annual opportunities for adult caregivers to consider their children’s developing interests and provide toys that support healthy play. But gender stereotypes related to children’s toys may limit what ends up on holiday gift lists in ways that aren’t necessarily in children’s best interests.

To shed light on this topic, the UC Santa Cruz news team connected with distinguished professor of psychology Campbell Leaper, a developmental and social psychologist who has decades of experience studying gender issues. Leaper’s prior research has identified the causes and consequences of popular beliefs around which toys are “for boys” or “for girls.” In the interview below, we asked Leaper to share his insights and some gift-giving tips to help all children get the broadest possible range of benefits out of their toys this holiday season.

Q: Professor Leaper, could you start us off with some historical context? What do people need to know about how gender stereotypes in children’s toys became an issue?

A: Well, there’s certainly a very long history of parents encouraging different activities for girls and boys, but what started to happen in the mid-20th century was that companies wanted to be able to effectively market toys to either girls or boys. So they developed a color-coding system. This is where the concept of “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” came from.

This coordinated effort to color-code toys into gender categories had an effect of exaggerating the differences in which activities were encouraged for boys versus girls. Around that same time, toy stores built upon this by increasingly creating separate sections for girls and boys. Whereas color-coding had been a bit more subtle in its messaging, these physical sections in stores were very explicitly labeling what was for girls or boys. And this was telling children and parents what kinds of toys they should be looking for.

Of course, there are some types of toys that parents would likely have been inclined to stereotype based on their child’s gender anyways; like a doll, for example. But there’s also a whole range of other toys, which parents might otherwise have been more open to encouraging for all children, that instead became stereotyped for one particular gender as a result of some of these marketing practices.

Q: And how do these gender stereotypes affect children’s development?

A: We know that between 2 and 3 years of age, children start to learn to associate pink with girls, and to a lesser extent, blue for boys. At about this same time, children are starting to develop a concept of their own gender. That usually means girls become attracted to things that are pink, and boys want to avoid things that are pink. So, one of the problems with toy companies putting those colors on things is that it steers children away from toys that they might otherwise find interesting, because it’s a signal to make children think, “Oh that’s not for me.”

During those same preschool years, children’s thinking is very concrete. They don’t yet have the cognitive capacity to understand nuance. And those years are the time when they’re most actively playing with toys. So it’s a double whammy for reinforcing gender stereotypes, because they’re already rigid thinkers, and then they’re also getting a lot of environmental cues telling them what it means to be a girl or a boy. It’s not until around age 6 or 7 that they may start to realize that not all girls or boys have the same interests and that gender identity is much more complicated than that.

One big issue that comes up with this is how gender stereotypes around toys affect gender-nonconforming children, who don’t identify with or feel like they fit in with their assigned gender. Gender-related labels or color cues on toys can be harmful for these children. It makes them feel bad; like they aren’t accepted for who they are.

Q: What might children gain from a wider range of options for toys and play?

A: One really important thing to recognize is that toys are opportunities for children to practice particular kinds of behaviors and skills. Adults may think that kids are only having fun when they’re playing, but there are many studies that show how children develop their cognitive and social skills through play. Use of a variety of toys can facilitate development of a variety of skills.

For example, if a child is playing with a baby doll, they’re practicing nurturing and caregiving skills. If they’re playing with a food set or having a tea party, they’re often practicing conversation and developing their social skills. If they’re playing with construction toys, they’re developing spatial skills, which seem to indirectly facilitate development of math competencies later in life. With sports or adventure play, children are developing confidence in the use of their bodies, which can lead to more positive body esteem. In my mind, these are all useful skills for children of any gender to practice and develop.

Q: What tips would you offer for how adults can encourage kids to try new things?

A: If you want to help your child become more flexible in the kinds of toys with which they play, one strategy is to provide them with a variety of toys. This will likely be easiest during the toddler years — around 1 to 3 years old — which is before children are likely to hold gender-stereotyped beliefs about which toys are considered desirable for girls versus boys. There’s a whole range of toys, from those that are very gender stereotypical to those that would be very counter-stereotypical. If you have a preschool-age or older child who already holds gender-stereotyped views, I’d recommend starting somewhere in the middle to help your child expand their comfort zone.

For example, if you have a preschool-age boy, maybe don’t give them a doll as the very first counter-stereotypical thing that you introduce, because they’ll likely associate that with being for girls. Instead, you could give them something like a food play set, which is still socially interactive in ways that may be new for them, but perhaps it’s less threatening to their gender-stereotyped beliefs. It’s also helpful to expose children to counter-stereotypical images, through things like non-traditional representations in children’s picture books and other media.

And children pay a lot of attention to who their gender role models are and what those people do. So it’s important for children to learn from adults that it’s okay to play with new types of toys. A mother and daughter sitting down together to play with a construction set is a good way to dispel gender stereotypes, and it’s even better if there’s a female friend from the daughter’s peer group who might enjoy playing together too.

Q: What makes the holidays a good time to test out these ideas?

A: Holidays are a good opportunity because, traditionally, it’s a time when children are asking for toys, and adults are giving toys. In some cases, children may be getting multiple toys at once, which actually makes it a bit easier. If you were to give a child only a counter-stereotypical toy, they might be pretty disappointed. But if it’s one of a few things that they receive, it just gives them new options in what to play with. As mentioned, some gentle encouragement may be needed to get a child to play with the counter-stereotypical toys.

For younger children, coming up with a holiday wish list is also an opportunity to have a conversation with them about their interests. In that process, you may be able to broaden their ideas about what types of toys could support those interests.

Q: Any other advice to share about how adults can support healthy play?

A: The best advice is always to be flexible with children. You want to be accepting of your child while also encouraging them to seek out multiple opportunities throughout their lives. During early childhood, that includes different styles of play. It’s very similar to how you might encourage an older child to excel in a variety of different school subjects or try out a few different extracurricular activities.

The more that young people can discover new things, the more opportunity they have to find what interests them and develop their talents. It’s not that everyone has to be the same or like the same things. We just don’t want to restrict people in those opportunities based on their gender category.

By Allison Arteaga Soergel, UC Santa Cruz

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