Choose holiday gifts that foster (rather than hinder) healthy development for boys and girls

Gendered toys can limit healthy development and promote bullying.

If you have children on your gift-giving list, take a moment to think carefully about the toys you purchase for them this holiday season. Research shows that the toys children interact with can help them to develop cognitive, spatial and empathy skills, as well as help them to learn about social play and relationships with others.  

But toys are also highly gendered as shown in ways that toy manufacturers and marketers define “girl toys” and “boy toys.” Toys that are marketed to girls tend to include dolls, fashion accessories, kitchen utensils and other domestic items – and often involve lots of shades of pink. Toys for boys tend to include action figures, monster trucks, weapons and sports equipment and usually involve shades of blue and other primary colors.

While many parents, educators and others who work with kids may believe that the differences between boys and girls and their interest in these gendered toys are innate, inborn and fixed, brain research shows otherwise. In her book Pink Brain Blue Brain, neuroscientist, Lise Eliot, examines how small differences in the infant brains of boys and girls grow into troublesome gaps later in life due in large part to socialization into our highly gendered culture built on a foundation of gender stereotypes. These narrow gender traps and boxes perpetuate stereotypes and promote gender conformity which can actually limit healthy brain development – as well as stunt social and emotional learning and growth.

An over-emphasis on highly gendered toys may also unwittingly perpetuate and reinforce violence and bullying behaviors. Young people and adults report that bullying behaviors are often linked to stereotypes and biases about human differences. A study of 1,065 elementary school students showed that twenty-three percent said that the reason kids get bullied is for being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy.” In addition, the study showed that gender nonconforming students are less likely than other students to feel safe at school (42 percent vs. 61 percent), and are more likely than others to be called names, made fun of or bullied at school (56 percent vs. 33 percent).

At a very early age (and throughout their lives), boys tend to get a lot of messages that encourage them to wear a mask of masculinity. As they grow up and struggle with their own identities, this can pressure boys and men to be cut off from their emotions, to devalue relationships and to objectify and degrade girls and women.

Gendered toys contribute to the ways that boys and girls receive powerful cultural messages about the “right way” to be a girl or a boy and these limiting gender stereotypes can impact identity development, peer relationships and brain development in both girls and boys. Read more about toys you can select this holiday season that provide opportunities to nurture healthy development for the children on your gift list.

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