14th November 2023 

I think one of the biggest clichés of aspirational parenting is wooden toys. That promise you make yourself that your kids will only play with beautiful wooden toys, that in your house there will only be super educational games and quality things. You’re going to go back to good and simple.

Chris and I were convinced that we wouldn’t buy plastic or toys with noises, and to be completely fair we haven’t done it much … but we also haven’t bought many of the good ones. We are, as my mum judgmentally calls us, ‘cheap parents’. I like to say that we are environmentally conscious, but to be fair it's probably a mix of both. The toys in our house are gifts, or hand-me-downs from generous friends and neighbours and some charity shop treasures. And there is definitely a fair share of noisy plastic in the house (some of those do, of course, get 'accidentally' given away or lost in transit). All this is just to say I am not judging anyone, I know that there is usually a huge difference between what we expect to do and what we actually end up doing.

As part of my very natural concerns around 'do my kids have too many toys or not enough good ones?' and my obsession with gender stereotypes in childhood, it was only a matter of time before I came across the website of Let Toys Be Toys. It is a parent-led organization that lobbies and campaigns for a more inclusive way to understand toys; they have a lot of resources for teachers, parents, toy sellers and manufacturers and they are committed to stopping the gender segregation in the toys industry - making sure our kids have as many options as possible. As a bonus, they even have an annual silliness awards where they highlight the worst examples of gendered marketing - last year the winners were the pink earth globes for girls and blue bibles for boys! 

When you think about toys as learning tools, and when you get a bit deeper into the skills they reinforce, it is very easy to see that all of them are necessary, and that every child would benefit from them all. By dividing types of toys by gender we are limiting skills for everybody. As we have seen already, these same limits are also pushed in every other aspect of their life, and it becomes obvious that this doesn't come without consequences. 

It is not as obvious, as natural, or even as timeworn as we might think. The ‘pinkification’ of products aimed at girls and the unnecessary division that colour coding provokes are relatively recent. Advertisements from the 1970s showed kids playing with a variety of toys in bright colours like red, green or yellow. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, toys started to become more gender segregated but still nothing like the segregation of pink and blue aisles of today. It’s simply and sadly just the result of clever marketing, with toy manufacturers and marketeers realizing that a lot of families bought twice as many things if they felt that what they had was not appropriate for siblings of different genders.

The first recourse of marketeers to get girls interested in toys that are culturally perceived as masculine is to launch a pink version of them! Pink gives them permission to embrace it. That same colour is a clear boundary for boys – if we want a boy to play with a toy perceived as feminine, we need to erase the penalty that pink carries. When we approach the segregation with ‘Let’s create a kitchen oven in a colour that boys can play with’ we are reinforcing the problem, instead of creating a solution, because it perpetuates the (illogical) idea that colours have a much deeper meaning than they actually have. Those short-term solutions feed a marketing strategy that is damaging. The question we should be asking is not ‘what is wrong with pink for girls?’ but, instead, ‘what’s wrong with pink for boys?’. What is right or wrong with any colour at all?

But what happens if my kids want those toys? If they really, really want them? Once again, critical observation can answer that question. Do kids really want those toys or is that desire learned?

In one experiment, 57 researchers took very similar toys that kids had not seen before and put them in stereotypical girls'/boys' boxes and gave them to a group of children. Both girls and boys explored more (and remembered more detailed information a week later) about the toys from their 'matching' boxes. Those were similar and novel toys for them. Another experiment showed that when they see a peer of their own gender playing with a toy, they categorise it as 'correct' and pay it more attention than when seeing the same toy being played with by a child from the opposite gender. Kids are detectives, they find the clues that give the the information that they have learned to identify as relevant. They know that their 'gender tribe' is important. They know which one they belong to, so they look for the rules to be good members of that group and conform to them. Don't we all?

We, as adults, need to ensure that all children get the opportunity to experience all different types of play, all different types of toys and all different types of friendships, rather than simple gender segregation. That means being aware as carers that there is no such thing as boys' or girls' toys and that our perception of 'my kid just naturally prefers this' is not as objective and natural as we might think. We need to be aware that stereotypes, especially with the help of marketing, have their tricks. It's our job as carers to make sure we too have our own tricks to remove these ingrained biases and the limiting effects that come with them. 

This is an edited extract from Childhood Unlimited: Parenting Beyond the Gender Bias by Virginia Mendez (Sheldon Press, RRP £12.99), available now.

Equal Play shares tips and tricks to help close the gender play gap.