Should parents de-emphasize gender norms?

The color of toys has a much deeper effect on children than some parents may realize.

LISA SELIN DAVIS: A lot of people who grew up in the 70s and 80s and then had children looked around at their kids' clothes and toys and said, 'I don't remember the pink Big Wheel thing. I feel like I just had the same Big Wheel as my brother. Or we shared one. And when did this happen that we divided everything into pink and blue?' In the 19th and early 20th century, kids were often playing with the same things. But as the fields of psychology and sexology expand, the idea that you can make a kid gay, a boy gay, by letting him access what's seen as feminine starts taking hold and there becomes an idea that parents should raise their little boys to be men, to be straight men and teach them early how to be men. And we see that in the toys. And so in the 1920s as this idea is taking hold in our society, you start getting, like Erector sets for boys and they're marketed specifically to boys that are saying, 'This will teach little Johnny how to be good at building things.' And you start getting sets of toy brooms and mops for girls that'll say, 'Every girl wants to be a housewife and if you buy this toy for her, she can learn early how to do it.' And it's very outright and very specific about here's a toy that will teach you your gender role. And what happens over the next hundred years is we start believing that all that is biological and that boys really want those construction sets and girls really want the toy brooms. But we no longer have a culture in which we treat them equitably or we mark things as gender neutral, so we don't have any way of knowing what kids would want if there was no stigma attached.

So dividing the toys up like that and then saying, oh my kid just wanted that, when everywhere those kids have seen the messages about what they should and shouldn't want, really reinforces not only the divisions of who gets to develop what skill, but also our ideas that this is somehow natural and biological. A great example of how masculinity is valued in both boys and girls and femininity is devalued in both boys and girls is what some psychologists call the PFD to tomboy phase, which is 'pink frilly dress' to tomboy phase. And they find that these girls often go through an intense princess phase from ages three to six, and then between six and eight you start hearing a lot of girls saying, 'I hate pink, I don't want to wear dresses anymore,' and a lot of parents celebrate that. Yay, the princess phase is so gross, I'm so happy we're out of it. But what they've discovered, what these psychologists discovered was that that is actually a moment of girls realizing that what's marked as feminine is devalued and so they're distancing themselves from it to prop themselves up higher on the ladder. And boys don't go through a phase like that where they turn six and they start saying, I hate pants, I hate sports, and I want to wear pink glitter dresses all the time, right? That's not happening. In fact, they become more rigid in their gender choices. So they are also realizing, Oh, that stuff that's feminine is devalued and I need to separate myself from it as much as possible. That was so sad to me because when we divide things into pink and blue, not just the colors, but these personality traits like girls are like this and boys are like this, and girls are sweet and sedentary and boys are rowdy and mean, and girls like dolls and boys like action figures, which by the way are the exact same thing.

You know, when we start dividing stuff up like that, kids don't feel like they can access what's on both sides, but it's actually really important for them to do so. And it's especially important for boys to feel like they can access what's on that pink side of the pink-blue divide, because what's over there is being kind and respectful and conscientious and other-centered and empathetic, you know, just basic human qualities that you would want any human being to have. And they feel like they can't access them because they're marked as for girls.

So I feel like we're obsessed with gender and we're obsessed with gender identity and we're obsessed with pronouns. And some of that is really wonderful and making more space for people. But when it comes to children, what I am talking about is gendering their childhoods less, is just giving them more room and living in the ambiguous place and being comfortable there as you wait to see who your child becomes.

  • The idea that blue is for boys and pink is for girls plays out in gender reveals and in the toy aisle, but where does it come from and what limits is it potentially placing on children?
  • Lisa Selin Davis traces the gendering of toys and other objects back to the 1920s and explains how, over time, these marketing strategies were falsely conflated with biological traits.
  • The "pink-blue divide" affects boys and girls on a psychological level. For example, psychologists discovered that when girls exit their intense 'pink princess' phase between ages 3-6 and move into a tomboy 'I hate pink' phase at age 6-8 "that is actually a moment of girls realizing that what's marked as feminine is devalued and so they're distancing themselves from it to prop themselves up higher on the ladder," says Selin Davis.

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