Are gendered toys negatively influencing childhood development?

Peri Mendelsohn (TC)'s picture

Gender bias is among the primary forms of discrimination, which is often reinforced in an early childhood setting through toy manufacturing. As a result of this early gender stereotyping, children often perceive abilities and hobbies to be gender-specific when they aren't in actuality.

A couple of months ago, the White House held a conference on gender stereotypes in toys and media. After the conference, Target announced that it would get rid of signs labeling toy aisles for boys and girls. Additionally, a UK Campaign called "Let Toys be Toys" has been encouraging retailers to stop categorizing books and toys as for one gender only. 

Retailers have not always separated toys by gender categories in the same manner they do now. In the 1970's, you wouldn't see one aisle dedicated to trucks and building blocks and one with tea sets and dolls. However, this issue has grown in recent years, and in the past two years or so, companies have begun reacting by implementing new toy categorization policies. 

Although the issue may seem slightly trivial, the types of toys a child plays with has a very large influence on their development and gender identity later on. Toys help children learn new skills and develop intellectually. For instance, dolls help children learn about cognitive sequencing and early language skills, whereas building blocks and lego puzzles teach children better spatial skills. Marketing these toys towards one specific gender is, in some ways, a form of discrimination because children of the opposite gender are deprived from gaining these same developmental skills. 

It is also interesting to note that preferences for different toys only appear after a child learns of their gender. Babies do not have a preference between different toys. This suggests that this issue is, indeed, an issue of gender separation. Since children think in black and white terms to begin with, once they learn of the expectations of their gender, they will be all the more inclined to choose toys associated with that gender. 

So how can we make this issue less "black and white" and encourage the manufacturing and marketing of new toys to be more gender-neutral? Here are a couple of discussion questions to guide your thinking:

  • Do you think this issue is predicated on different marketing or manufacturing strategies? 
  • Do you think gendered toys negatively influence childhood development? 
  • What do you think of Target's decision to get rid of "boy" and "girl" aisles? What are the pros and cons of a decision like this? Should other companies imitate this strategy?
  • How do you think the media interplays with this phenomenon? 
  • What do you think are the long-term effects of gendered toys?