Toxic Parenting - Perpetuating the Gender Divide

Article Beth Kennedy / Nel Margerison

Why are some parents deathly afraid that their son might want to play with dolls or that their daughter might want to play with toy cars?

Why are some parents terrified of their son wearing a tutu or their daughter preferring to wear a shirt and bow tie?

Children shouldn’t be judged or ridiculed for their choice in clothing, toys or even what they want to be when they grow up.

Toy segregation doesn’t make sense because, despite the current struggle for gender equality, men and women can essentially do the same things.

So that little boy who loves to look after his dolls shouldn’t be can be parents too and even, shock horror, stay-at-home dads.

This week Aussie blogger Constance Hall posted about her partner being subtly insulted for his role as a stay at home parent, highlighting how easy and automated our stereotypes have become. One comment was particularly beautiful in which a nursery worker was challenged by a father as to why his son was playing with dolls, her quick retort, short and sweet, was: “He’s learning how to be a father”  

When we discourage our future fathers from playing games in which they take care and nurture are we breeding the very same toxic masculinity we are trying to address?

And that little girl who enjoys dressing up as a firefighter shouldn’t be told “that isn’t for girls” - because women can be firefighters and that number is increasing year on year. It is never ok to express subtle questioning over the interests of young people. Children are always seeking positive reinforcement, it is how they learn and develop. The oh-so-subtle query or recognition that there is something unusual about their choice is enough to limit a child’s expectation and imagination.

children don't need labels

Even the seemingly innocent comment “oh that is nice to see a girl building a rocket’ is enough to tell that child they are odd and unusual for doing so and with no malicious intent could cause them to question what they are busy enjoying. 

Girls toys vs boys toys, an experiment by the BBC, questioned “Are you sure you don't gender-stereotype children in the toys you choose for them?”

The test suggested that people are very segregated in the ‘this is for boys’ and ‘this is for girls’ camps when it comes to clothes and toys for children. The male babies were dressed in typical female clothes and vice versa for the female babies. Adults then entered the room to play with the children, having never met any of them before. In all cases, the adults chose traditionally gendered toys and treated the babies in different ways. For example, one woman chose a robot for the ‘boy’ baby and spoke more loudly and ‘more directly,’ whereas to the baby ‘girl’ the adults spoke in a more soothing voice and offered dolls to ‘her.’

The adults in the experiment weren’t even aware of the stereotyping they were engaging in - which to me says it’s been drilled into us from a young age.  

Lego has been praised for its gender neutral targeting - it even actively celebrates women’s achievements. For example, the winner of the Lego Ideas competition was Lego NASA Women, featuring a set of five influential women in STEM careers such as astronaut Sally Ride and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton.

The brief for Lego NASA Women explains the toys “provide an educational building experience to help young ones and adults alike learn about the history of women in STEM.”

There’s no mention of “this is just for girls” - because we all know that would be counterproductive. It’s certainly safe to say just as many girls as boys all over the world love to play with Lego...and the world has never had a problem with that.

Let us hope their foray into the world of highly gendered directed play for girls vs boys is over for Lego because we all want to keep Lego where it belongs; in the hearts of children over the world as a go to toy for all. This was a childhood I cherished and hold very sacred.

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Have a look at the child on the left now an adult, showing how even our beloved Lego fell prey to the ugly marketing black hole of gendering play in this insightful video by buzz 60

Is this all an issue of marketing? Are we all just being hoodwinked into spending more money?

Probably yes! - As clothing and toy marketing are deeply ingrained in most of us it is hard to see but that’s how companies make money. They ‘gender’ their supply for a demand only they themselves have manufactured.  These things have a way of being so much a part of our future identity we have to shine a light on them. Take the diamond engagement ring: How many people do you know who would question what they would use to propose or how many people kill themselves with debt trying to purchase something that was only ever a marketing strategy by De-Beers in the 1940’s. Diamonds are …. If you can’t finish that sentence then maybe you are immune!

What action can we take against this? When a company shows signs of being progressive, we must actively encourage it and promote it in a positive light. If these companies see more and more people giving them free publicity, they’re more likely to move away from heavily gendered clothes and toys and move towards a more natural, free-flowing approach.

Fortunately, some of the big companies are making changes. Barbie changed its original slogan from “You’re a Barbie girl” to “We girls can do anything” in 2009 to “You can be anything” in 2015 to recognise and outwardly encourage boys who like to play with the dolls.

But why is it important to take away gendered signage in shops and on retailer’s websites?

No, it isn’t to pander to the Social Justice Warriors. It’s so kids don’t feel like they can’t get that spaceship because they’re a girl or they can’t get that toy hairdressing set because they’re a boy.

It’s so kids don’t feel like they’re wrong for choosing something that isn’t traditionally marketed to their gender.

Rather ironically, some people are denouncing a more open-minded approach to gender calling it harmful and dangerous. The only harmful and dangerous thing here is telling girls and boys they have to dress in a specific way or play with certain toys to avoid being bullied and ridiculed - which is a social construct created by these scared people.

It’s so unhealthy for kids to feel ‘wrong’ about why they like a particular toy or item of clothing - it’s time we put a stop to it.

Conversely, it’s just as important to let girls wear dresses and boys wear trousers if that’s their personal taste. What I’m saying here is no child should be forced to wear certain clothes or play with certain toys. If your daughter loves pink, glittery things then that’s fantastic! If your son also loves pink, glittery things then that’s just as fantastic! And vice versa with ‘masculine’ clothes and toys.

Not only is it the responsibility of toy and clothes manufacturers to spread a message of diversity and all-inclusiveness, it’s the parents’, schools’ and nurseries’ responsibility too. We should all be more open-minded in that the world isn’t simply a pink and blue place.

The campaign Let Toys Be Toys has been very successful so far in persuading retailers to get rid of the gendering of clothes, books and toys. The Entertainer, Debenhams and Boots have removed all traces of gender signage in their stores. The campaigners have also launched Toymark, an award which promotes retailers for good practice. It’s also really helpful as a starting point for parents looking for retailers who don’t stoop to gendering everything.

The sister site Let Clothes Be Clothes has also successfully campaigned for the eradication of gendered clothing sections in John Lewis and changing gendered wording on the Mothercare website. The organisation also has a handy list of approved clothing retailers (we’re on there too!).

Children need choice. They don’t need to be signposted into what they can and can’t play with or wear. Let them choose, let them be kids, buy a teddy (thankfully still typically not gendered)!

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1 comment
  • Love this: They ‘gender’ their supply for a demand only they themselves have manufactured.

    Ski on

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