Do toys have a gender?

Here’s a delicate question if there ever was one, because it’s not only a trivial choice of toy for your child; it carries at much deeper meaning of personal and social values.

A doll for Emma and a truck for Simon?

Hi! I’m the mother of two boys (2 ½ and 6 years old), and my youngest asked Santa for a doll. His  choice makes me a little uncomfortable. Is it normal ? Should I worry that my son likes dolls when his older brother never played with this type of toy ? On one side, I’d like to give it to him because he really wants it, but on the other hand, I don’t want him to be laughed at...

What specialists have to say…

In fact, choosing stereotypical games and toys comes from the child’s sexual identity development. From the moment he starts to see as belonging to one sex over another. Yet, children only start to differentiate girls from boys at around two years old. Before then, a child is simply a child. In terms of their own identity however, and although they are not yet aware of being more a boy than a girl, some behaviours appear to be well defined from a very young age and can sometimes take us by surprise.

I thus offer you concrete examples that will show this unequivocal fact: as parents, we do not have control over everything!

Thomas surprised us during a family dinner last year. While we did not think we had instilled stereotyped behaviours in our children, we saw our 8-month old baby using his spoon as a little toy truck. Today, at 20 months old, he loves everything with wheels just as much.

As far as our 3 ½ little girl, she recently started taking her role as a princess very seriously, even though I’m anything but « high heels and dresses ». She loves to put on makeup, long dresses and pearl necklaces, just like most of her friends at daycare.  When I asked her about her perception of toys, here’s what she answered: “Dolls, Barbies, Dora and all the princess things are girl toys, and trucks, tools and Spiderman games are boy toys. Books, music, kitchenette, cash register, movies, colouring books and puzzles are just as fun to boys and girls.” When I asked her if a boy could play with a doll, she answered “No!” right away. When I reminded her how much her little brother likes to play with dolls, she simply said: “It’s not the same, he’s a little boy, not a big one!”.

And yet, through my years of working with children, I’ve often seen boys love dolls and girls love building blocks! I remember Oliver, who loved to dress up with hats, shoes and scarves, Kassandra, who loved playing with toy trains and fought with the boys of her group, and Felix, who always had a great time playing with Barbies. I’ve also seen many parents uncomfortable with these preferences. Fear of being judged, of facing the others’ disapproving stares,  of seeing our child being made fun of. But is this fear really justified?

Adapted solutions to meet your needs

What we must realize is that the social roles of adults have also changed: dads are more involved early on in their babies’ lives, moms drive cars and can sometimes even repair them. And because children learn by watching their parents, it is normal for boys and girls to be just as interested in dolls and cars.

In fact, between 2 and 6 years old, a child builds his sexual identity by imitating his same-sex parent or by being different from the one of the opposite sex. It’s thus part of his development to be interested by games that reproduce what adults do. It’s up to us as parents to offer our children a large array of toys and games to which they can develop an interest.

As a psychoeducator, I find it quite delicate to address this issue. Because it’s not only a trivial choice of toy for a child; it carries at much deeper meaning of personal and social values. Values that vary from one family to another, one culture to another, one generation to another. As parents, we can choose to educate our kids in the same way, no matter what their gender is. We can buy our son a doll and find it completely normal, but there will always be someone to question our choice. Because although mentalities have greatly evolved over the past decades, some expectations towards boys’ and girls’ behaviours, personalities and tastes seem to persist.

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