Fifty years of research on children's toy preferences shows that kids generally prefer toys oriented toward their own gender.
- A recent meta-analysis overviewed 75 studies on children's gender-related toy preferences.
- The results found that "gender-related toy preferences may be considered a well-established finding."
- It's a controversial topic: Some people argue that these preferences stem from social pressure, while others say they're at least partly rooted in biology.
There's more gender equality in Western societies today than in the past. Inequalities still exist, of course, but research shows a general uptrend in women joining and rising within the workforce, obtaining degrees, and earning more money. The social expectations of men and women also seemed to have changed; this is harder to measure empirically, but it seems safe to say that our ideas about gender roles are more fluid today than they were, in say, the 1950s.
So, have these changes affected a crucial part of children's development: play? More specifically, as gender roles have become more fluid, have children's preferences toward gender-typed toys become more fluid, too?
The short answer seems to be no. For decades, studies have shown that boys and girls generally prefer playing with toys typically associated with their biological sex: toy trucks for boys and dolls for girls, to give a rough example.
These results have remained remarkably stable over the past 50 years, according to a 2020 meta-analysis of research on gender differences in toy preferences. Published in Archives of Sexual Behavior and titled "The Magnitude of Children's Gender‐Related Toy Interests Has Remained Stable Over 50 Years of Research," the analysis examined 75 previous studies, 113 effect sizes, and a range of toy preference measurements.
No matter what society wants, it's worth noting that there seems to be some biological drivers behind children's preferences for gender-typical toys.
The authors, Jac T. M. Davis and Melissa Hines, found "a broad consistency of results across the large body of research on children's gender-related toy preferences: children showed large and reliable preferences for toys that were related to their own gender. Thus, according to our review, gender-related toy preferences may be considered a well-established finding."
A letter to the editor in the same journal sought to challenge these findings in a separate analysis, which concluded that children actually spend less time playing with gender-typical toys these days.
The authors of that analysis speculated that the reason for this decline "might reflect social pressures in recent times for children to be less gender-typical in their behavior." In other words, the decline stems from parents wanting to be more in line with progressive ideas about gender fluidity.
However, Davis and Hines disagreed, proposing that the supposed decline appeared in the analysis only because of the specific methodology employed by the researchers. What's more, they noted that toy advertisers have been using more gender stereotypes to boost sales in recent decades—a finding that potentially complicates the claim that social pressures are causing kids to spend less time playing with gender-typical toys.
Davis and Hines concluded:
"It may be tempting to think that social changes over time might be reducing children's play with gender-related toys, given arguments that play with a broader set of toys would be beneficial for both boys and girls. Unfortunately, however, broad change in the social roles of men and women do not seem to have influenced children's toy choices, perhaps because they have been counteracted by stronger marketing of different toys to girls and boys over recent time. If society wants girls and boys to play with the full range of toys, more targeted action is probably required."
Little boy playing mathematics wooden toy at nurseryCredit: Rawpixel.com via Adobe Stock
Why are we so concerned about which toys kids play with?
But does society really want kids to play with less gender-typical toys? Some research suggests the answer is yes. A 2017 survey from Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans considered it a "somewhat or very good thing" to steer kids toward toys and activities traditionally associated with the opposite gender (though respondents were less enthusiastic about doing so for boys than girls).
Encouraging kids to play with a wider range of toys could yield benefits. For example, a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that when both boys and girls play with dolls, they experience heightened activation within brain regions associated with empathy and perspective-taking.
But no matter what society wants, it's worth noting that there seem to be some biological drivers behind children's preferences for gender-typical toys.
For example, studies have shown that babies tend to prefer toys oriented to their own gender, a finding that suggests their preference is innate because they're in the pre-socialization stage of development. Supporting that argument are studies showing that baby monkeys also display gender-typical toy preferences.
Still, it's easy to see how social pressures might affect kids' toy preferences as they grow up. So, the question of why kids prefer the toys that they do likely boils down to a familiar answer: a tangled mix of environmental and biological factors.
"It would be extreme to claim zero influence of biology on gender differences in toy choices, and the research community is still divided on how important biology and social factors are," Davis told Big Think.
Children with pre-existing mental health issues thrived during the early phase of the pandemic.
- While COVID-19 physically affects adults more than children, mental health distress has increased across all age groups.
- Children between 5 and 17 sought help for mental health issues at much higher rates in 2020.
- However, a new study found children with pre-existing mental health issues experienced reduced symptoms when lockdowns began.
While the physical effects of COVID-19 have dominated headlines for the last 13 months, mental health effects are considered a simultaneous pandemic that could outlast the virus. Children have generally been resilient against the novel coronavirus (though at least one variant is hitting that demographic harder). In terms of depression and anxiety, however, children are on par with adults.
Emergency hospital visits for mental health issues in the 12-to-17-year-old demographic have jumped 31 percent since the pandemic began. Younger children have fared only slightly better: a 24 percent increase for children ages 5 to 11. In Germany, one in three children has suffered anxiety or depression over the past year. On top of this, children are having trouble learning in remote education environments.
However, at least one demographic fared better than normal, at least during the early phase of lockdowns. According to a new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, middle school children from a predominantly Latinx community with higher-than-normal levels of mental distress experienced a reduction in symptoms.
Children with previous mental health problems saw reduced internalizing (behaviors including being withdrawn, nervous, lonely, unwanted, or sad), externalizing (behaviors including lying, acting irresponsibly, breaking the law, or displaying lack of remorse), and other problems.
Those without mental health issues benefited as well, at least in terms of internalizing and overall behavior; there was no change in attentional issues or externalizing.
The researchers began tracking 322 children (average age 12) in January 2020, before the pandemic took hold in America. They were studied until May 2020. While this only represents a sliver of time in lockdown, senior author Carla Sharp, a psychology professor at the University of Houston, says the results have important clinical implications.
"First, promoting family functioning during COVID-19 may have helped protect or improve youth mental health during the pandemic. Further, it is important to consider cultural factors, such as familism and collectivism in Latinx communities that may buffer the early effects of disasters on mental health to COVID-19 stress."
Seven-year-old Hamza Haqqani, a 2nd-grade student at Al-Huda Academy, uses a computer to participate in an E-learning class with his teacher and classmates while at his home on May 01, 2020 in Bartlett, Illinois.Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Many have decried what we've lost during this past year. Indeed, the issues are many and complex. Yet we've also seen reductions in environmental damage (including noise pollution) and increased savings. We also have a greater awareness of how factory farming helps viruses proliferate. And, despite the obvious challenges of earning a living with so many businesses and industries shuttered, this time has afforded some an opportunity to reconnect with their family.
Study co-author Jessica Hernandez Ortiz says this research could inspire new avenues of addressing mental health issues in children.
"Our findings underline the importance of the family environment and Latinx collectivist values of community connection for promoting child resilience and brings into stark focus the possibility that school environments may exacerbate mental health difficulties. Removal from that context into a less pressured environment immediately and positively impacts mental health."
Since the study ended shortly into the pandemic, the novelty of family togetherness could have diminished as families became economically strained and realized that spending all their time together was more taxing than initially imagined. That said, humans are social animals that require regular contact with family and peers. The latter group might not have been available, but at least for some children, their families filled in the gaps, especially for those that did not thrive in a traditional school environment.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Escaping the marshmallow brain trap.
- Roman Krznaric, philosopher and author of the book "The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking," says that there are two parts of the human brain that are driving our decisions and ultimately determining what kind of legacy we leave behind for future generations.
- Short-term thinking happens in the marshmallow brain (named after the famous Stanford marshmallow test), while long term thinking and strategizing occurs in the acorn brain. By retraining ourselves to use the acorn brain more often, we can ensure that trillions of people—including our grandchildren and their grandchildren—aren't inheriting a depleted world and the worst traits that humankind has to offer.
- "At the moment we're using on average 1.6 planet earths each year in terms of our ecological footprint," says Krznaric, but that doesn't mean that it's too late to turn things around. Thinking long term about things like politics and education can help "rebuild our imaginations of what a civilization could be."
A 50-year study reveals changing values children learned from pop culture.
- A new study tracked changes in values tweens (8-12 years old) get from popular culture.
- The researchers compared 16 values over a 50-year-period.
- The report was created by the UCLA's Center for Scholars and Storytellers.
A new report from UCLA's Center for Scholars and Storytellers focused on values espoused by television programs that were popular with children 8-12 between over half a century, between 1967 to 2017. The researchers looked at how 16 values changed in importance during that span.
The most important value in 2017, the last year the study looked at, was achievement, with self-acceptance, image, popularity, and belonging to a community in the top five.
Another interesting find charted the value of fame, which used to rank at the bottom for nearly 40 years (ranking 15th until 1997), then skyrocketed to No. 1 as a value in 2007. By 2017, it went down to No. 6.
Why was fame so important in 2007? The scientists tie it to the growth of social media platforms like Facebook (launched in 2004) and YouTube (launched in 2005). Teens quickly adopted these mediums and many content-creators from that first decade of the 2000s made "fame-focused tween shows," concluded the researchers. These platforms "which for the first time allowed anyone and everyone to seek a large audience, were brand new and seemed an essential part of the zeitgeist," they wrote in the paper.
Studies have also shown that this rise in fame-seeking corresponded to a rise in narcissism, while empathy decreased.
Change in values from tween television.
Other values, like community feeling and benevolence, also fluctuated in significance through the years, according to the study. The changes in value importance were directly correlated to changes in the culture at large. The importance of community was number one or two in four of the decades but fell to 11 in 2007. Being kind and helpful was in the second spot in 1967 and 1997, but only 12th in 2007. Now it's up to number 8.
Psychology professor Yalda Uhls, the report's author as well as founder and executive director of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, remarked on the trends:
"I believe that television reflects the culture, and this half-century of data shows that American culture has changed drastically," said Uhls. "Media plays an important role as young people are developing a concept of the social world outside of their immediate environment."
One big value shift the study pointed out has to do with the kinds of messages kids get from reality shows (evaluated since 2007) and fictional shows that are scripted.
The most popular shows among tweens in 2017, based Nielsen ratings, were "America's Got Talent" and "American Ninja Warrior." Among scripted shows, the top two were "Thundermans" and "Girl Meets World." The values conveyed by the scripted shows were self-acceptance, community belonging and being kind. While in reality TV, values like fame, self-centeredness and image were promoted.
Reality shows, which are created for a wide audience, but watched frequently by tweens, tend to center on competition and the value of being the winner at something. They also celebrate tactics like bullying and cheating in order to win.
Most watched tween TV shows from 1967-2017 in the U.S.
The report's lead author, Agnes Varghese, a fellow of the center and a UC Riverside graduate student, explained how shows influence the kids:
"If tweens watch, admire and identify with people who mostly care about fame and winning, these values may become even more important in our culture," shared Varghese. "Reality television shows continued to reflect the same trend we saw in 2007, with self-focused values such as fame ranking highest."
Researchers also point out that shows, whether scripted or reality, are misleading in that they don't really reveal the value of hard work that it takes to achieve fame, especially for an average person. This is a crucial shortcoming, considering that tweens form lifelong belief systems during these years based on what they perceive as desirable to achieve in the future.
Check out the full report here: "The Rise and Fall of Fame: Tracking the Landscape of Values Portrayed on Television from 1967 to 2017" (PDF).
Flying that helicopter too low is counterproductive.
- A new study at Stanford finds that giving too much direction to children can be counterproductive.
- Children that are given too much advice display more difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions at other times.
- The researchers suggest a balance between being involved while allowing children to figure things out on their own.
In a scathing indictment of the growing influence of money in the private school educational system—and therefore on education, opportunity, and social mobility in America—The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan investigates the increasingly troublesome trend of parental involvement in their children's schooling. She points out an anecdotal instance when, as a private school teacher, she butted heads with the same parents twice after giving their child the unforgivable grade of an A-.
One of those irate phone calls came in less than 10 minutes after handing said student their creative writing paper. This meant they left the classroom and bolted straight to the school's pay phone to complain—this was the 1990s, after all. The parents immediately phoned the school. Back then, the school had her back; today, parents yield much more influence, often in the form of endowments.
Flanagan's article highlights two important questions beyond the unyielding influence of money on education: How involved should parents be in their children's education? And what is the emotional result of too much intervention on the child?A new study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, attempts to answer both of those questions. Led by Stanford Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Jelena Obradović, the study finds that while it's important for parents to be involved, too much direction and influence can be counterproductive.
Why helicopter parenting backfires on kids | Heather Heying | Big Think
For this study, researchers watched videos of parental behavior around their kindergarten-age children. A total of 102 children, ages four to six, were brought into the Stanford lab by their primary caregivers. The children were tasked to clean up toys, learn new games, and discuss problems. The researchers timed the length of their interactions with caregivers, such as how much direction the parents gave them when trying to solve a novel puzzle.
The results were clear.
"The children of parents who more often stepped in to provide instructions, corrections or suggestions or to ask questions – despite the children being appropriately on task – displayed more difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions at other times. These children also performed worse on tasks that measured delayed gratification and other executive functions, skills associated with impulse control and the ability to shift between competing demands for their attention."
Given the laboratory conditions—parents knew they were being watched—Obradović and team noticed that parents did not yell or check their phones. How realistic this is for such a large cohort is difficult to gauge. The team was looking for "parental over-engagement," the tendency for parents to intervene too often and not allow their children to figure things out for themselves.
Credit: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock
Of course, helping children is important as well. The team notes that aiding a child while they work on a new puzzle helps with cognitive development and independence. Striking a balance between lending a hand and letting the child struggle is important. As Obradović states, "there is a lot of variability within those averages, and our goal was to discover more subtle differences among parents who are generally doing fine."
This research is especially pertinent during the pandemic as parents and children are interacting more than ever. The overall message: if you're going to fly a helicopter, only descend when necessary.
This advice is critical for an educational system that, as Flanagan points out, is skewed to favor children from wealthy families. One startling statistic: only half of the public-school students in California are at grade reading levels; the numbers for math are even worse. As she writes, "Shouldn't the schools that serve poor children be the very best schools we have?"
Extrapolating from that idea, we can ask the same of all parents: shouldn't we work toward supporting children in the very best manner possible? Be it through influence or attention, it seems that too much of anything is usually counterproductive. Kids need to learn on their own terms, too.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."