For the longest time, kids can’t differentiate between colours. What they can differentiate between, with surprising speed and accuracy, is gender. I remember being amazed by how early G could tell the difference between males and females. She could correctly point out ‘akka,’ ‘anna,’ ‘uncle,’ or ‘aunty,’ even if the girls were wearing shorts, or the boys had long hair. I did some groundwork, and found that children can identify gender by the time they’re 3 months old. I wasn’t looking for this nugget, but I also discovered that by the age of one, children start gravitating towards societally constructed gender-consistent toys (trucks for boys, dolls for girls, and so on).
It’s pretty evident why this could happen. Consider the mind of a very young baby trying to make sense of the world. They mimic what they see. As an infant, G would try to make the sounds the people around her made, try to lift her head the way we did. As she grew, she started trying to process the information the world gave her. She was able to categorize me as a female like her, while her dad was different. From there, she probably moved on to classifying what made the two of us – and other females – similar, and what made her dad, and other males, different.
She can only take her cues from what she sees. So she sees that he goes to office, while I stay at home looking after her. Or that he has short hair while I have long hair. Honestly, we probably send her millions of signals, and so do all the other males and females she sees around her. Only some of those signals have to do with gender, but if she sees enough of the people around her give out the same signal, then it’s inevitable that she’d classify it as being associated with that gender. Eg: if most of the women she sees around her are interested in dressing up, or most men are interested in fixing things, she starts seeing those as roles that ‘belong’ to that gender.
From there, it’s invariable that she’d try to assimilate by mimicking the gender-specific behavior she’s observed. The messages she has processed get further internalized when they’re reinforced by people’s responses – for example, if she dresses up in something ‘girly’ and gets told how pretty she’s looking, or overhears a relative talking about how all girls gravitate towards delicate things. It’s amazing to think that all of this messaging can register as early as three months; and certainly by a year.
As parents, we can be aware of our own implicit biases and try to ensure our children grow up with a more open approach to the things around them. For that to happen though, we have to truly let go of our biases. Telling my daughter she can’t have things which are pink or girly is as counterproductive as ONLY giving her those things in the first place. I believe as a parent, it’s my job to expose G to everything possible – the girlish, the boyish, the neutral – and let her pick whatever she wants. Only then can she truly make an unbiased choice.
Anyway, these labels ‘boyish’, ‘for girls,’ and so on, are ridiculous. Toys, clothes, and colours are not designed gendered. It’s our biases that make them so. All things are, in theory, for everyone. In fact, isn’t that the point of stressing on gender neutrality? The end goal is to send every child the message that they can like whatever they want, and be whoever they want to be, irrespective of their gender.
This is a message that won’t come across based on just what colour G’s nursery is painted, or which toys and clothes we place inside it. Rather, we try to model neutrality for her. I go on vacations by myself, I tell her I don’t always like cooking, I give in to my love for climbing and getting dirty, I get super competitive when we play sports. My husband cuts her nails, gives her baths, dances her around the room, and regularly talks about his feelings for her.
We try to give her universally applicable compliments which address her abilities rather than her appearance. We praise the effort she puts into things, or the growth she’s made in accomplishing something. We also give her choices whenever we can, and we don’t react, no matter what her choice is. If I overhear a statement I don’t agree with, like a salesman saying ‘Girls like dolls,’ I say, ‘SOME girls like dolls,’ rather than just letting it slide. And, after all that, if G picks the pinkest, frilliest, blondest doll in the store and tells me how pretty it is – fair enough. That’s her own preference.
But, I’ll admit it – given how quickly gender preferences develop in children, if I see her picking only the stereotypically girlish stuff, I buy her things from across the spectrum too. I have no regrets about that, and I don’t do it to be feminist or any such thing. I do it because it makes sense. Exposing your children to toys of every sort isn’t just about being politically correct – it’s about giving them every possible opportunity to develop.
Dolls and pretend play introduce event sequencing and enhance vocabulary. Building blocks and construction sets teach spatial skills. Needless to say, both male and female children require spatial prowess as well as cognitive vocab skills. So why does marketing suggest we only give girls dolls, and only give boys Mechanix sets? It’s hardly surprising if girls go from playing with dolls to becoming home makers, while boys evolve through toys designed to improve their cognitive range into engineers and scientists. All toys are for everyone, and it’s time to reclaim them for all genders. This is the best way to ensure that the future generation grows up having all the exposure they need to a diverse range of skills. This is the first step towards ensuring that they get to be whoever they want to be when they grow up.
There’s a lot that has been said about gender and children. I’ll leave it with this wish, which is as neutral as it gets – I want to raise a happy child; one who is curious, confident, and engaged. I’d like her to wear clothes in which she’s comfortable, in colours which appeal to her. She can be pretty, strong, graceful, awkward, brave, shy, ambitious, or whatever else she chooses to be – I just want her to be able to discover who she is for herself.
(This post was written after a discussion I had with Ruchi from Toyroom Toys. She sent me a versatile Goki hammer and nail farm set for review, which is pictured here because it’s a perfect example of the kind of toy we love playing with. However, this post is not sponsored, and all opinions are mine).