British research has shown that the average 10-year-old has 238 toys yet plays with only 12 on a daily basis. Traditionally, many Americans have taken the “trucks are for boys, dolls are for girls” idea very seriously. But now, many parents and brands are realizing that by limiting their toy selection based on arbitrary gender associations, children may be missing out.
Now, more brands are embracing gender neutral options to appeal to customers. From unisex clothing to toy ads featuring children of both genders, separation based on gender identity seems to be on the way out. Even young children are showing more flexibility than before in terms of their perception of toy ads, says developmental psychologist and study author Dr. Laura Zimmerman.
As Zimmerman told the New York Times, the children observed in her study published in the Journal of Children and Media last year responded that both boys and girls could like Batman or Lego’s “feminine” collection of building blocks. But, she went on to say, the participants’ behaviors became more stereotypical when it came to expressing their own personal preferences, illustrating that gender-specific toy ads still very much hold the power to shape and reinforce these outdated conventions.
Other research has found that when toy brands are too strict in their gendering, kids may be the ones who suffer. Developmental psychologist Dr. Lauren Spinner notes that so-called “masculine” toys like puzzles and blocks encourage the development of spatial and visual skills, while “feminine” toys that involve role playing help develop communication and other social skills. While 75% of young children in the U.S. attend preschools that can allow them to develop these skills in other ways, it’s highly possible that children who have their playtime limited to just one set of gendered toys may not get to reap all of the benefits these toys could provide.
Interestingly enough, a survey on debate.org showed that 60% of people don’t believe that gender roles are important to society. While some parents may be divided on that particular issue, it seems that consumers are moving towards a more neutral approach when it comes to toys.
A Target press release from last year posted on the store’s website noted, “Over the past year, guests have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender. Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance.”
And even Mattel, best known for the unrealistic standards of beauty perpetuated by the beloved-yet-problematic doll, has decided to move beyond the career limitations the company placed upon Barbie. Although the manufacturer has come under fire before for implying Barbie (and therefore, young girls) could expect only to become a preschool teacher or an aerobics instructor, the company recently announced they’ll be offering Barbie-branded computer coding lessons to empower young girls to pursue STEM interests.
While we likely won’t see all retailers taking a step back from gender-specific toys any time soon, it may be encouraging to both parents and kids to see specific brands making a shift towards a more inclusive point of view.