We had promised my son he could pick out one “small” toy. I don’t remember why, it was probably one of those questionable parenting moves, like “if you can sit still while we look at end tables, you can pick one small toy,” kind of a thing (we’ve all been there!)
So, there we were — my son leaning out of the cart trying to look at every single toy in the whole store. He was having a hard time choosing something and starting to whine. We were getting frustrated.
My husband picked up a transformer and said, “what about this one?” My son said “NO not THAT one!” and started on a new whining tirade. I was on the verge of canceling the whole toy shopping endeavor, but instead, I steered the cart a few aisles down, took a deep breath and said:
“Why not that one? Do you not like transformers anymore?” He looked up with a frustrated face and said, “It’s too scary.” I took a closer look. It was scary, dark colors and a demonic looking face. It was nothing like the one he had at home. My husband and I exchanged looks and we both got it. In that moment we went from frustrated to empathetic. Imagine being 4 and overwhelmed with so many choices — some scary, some boring, and to top it off your parents keep saying “no, not that one, it’s too big.” We went back over to the toy aisle and found a white and bright orange transformer without a scary face. My son was happy — excited for his new toy, but I was troubled. The vast majority of the “boy” toys were violent at best and disturbing at worst.
There are all kinds of problems with gender-typed toys. Research shows that highly stereotypical feminine toys are more likely to emphasize physical attractiveness, domestic skills, and nurturing behaviors whereas, highly stereotypical masculine toys are more likely to be violent, competitive, exciting, and moderately dangerous. It is clear that there are problems all over the board here. The gender divide in the toy aisle has grown dramatically since we were kids — in the 1975 Sear’s catalog less than 2% of the toys were marketed especially towards boys or girls! And while there has been quite a lot said about the problems with the princess-fication of girls toy’s (and rightly so), little has been said about what’s happening over in the “blue” aisle.
What “blue” aisle you ask? Oh I mean the “boys” aisle — that one over there — ok it’s not really blue at all, more black and red, really just colorless dark gray. The scary aisle with the brightest color being a fluorescent green on a half-mechanical half-dinosaur beast with glowing red eyes.
It’s the stuff nightmares, and apparently, little boys are made of.
When I looked into this I found articles ranging from boys just play differently due to some yet undiscovered gene (ugh) and that violent play is something just expected from boys (double ugh).
And I found this, 95% of violent toys are marketed to boys. That is a staggering difference in what we think boys and girls should play with. Even the iconic LEGO, a once stalwart of the gender neutral moment in the 70’s, has become increasingly violent over time according to a study in PLOS One.
I don’t buy the statement that boys are “hardwired” to be socially dominant and aggressive any more than I think we need a “groundbreaking study” to dispel the idea that boys are naturally better at math. These are social constructions we have created. In fact, in one study, preschool girls were found to be more socially dominant and aggressive than preschool boys.
We handle it differently too. When a girl gets her feelings hurt, she tells her mom, maybe the teacher too. Everyone gets together and talks about it. The mothers have a powwow and stress about the “girl drama” and they do their best to resolve it. It takes a village, you know, and I applaud it.
When a boy is constantly dubbed the “bad guy” and feels isolated on the playground what happens? Well, the mothers of boys don’t quite gather around and talk about his hurt feelings. And while the teachers do their best to intervene, they are facing an uphill battle of boys who have learned that good guy/bad guy is the way to play.
Boys will be boys after all.
But for as long as I can help it, not my boy. Not my strong, sensitive, and yes, competitive, dominant, stubborn boy. As long as I can, I will protect him from that scary toy aisle and the violent TV shows that go along with it. There is no reason that his playroom needs a plethora of weapons or mutant anythings.
We will stick to that one in-between aisle with the “nice” Lego sets and building sets, the one that is decidedly more “masculine” even though it’s supposed to be “neutral.” Research has shown that the most educational toys, the ones that may enhance our children’s development, are typically marketed as gender neutral or “moderately” masculine (a problem in its own right). If I was a toy company, this is where I’d stake my claim. And if I was a mother to a little girl, I’d shop in this aisle too.
Rough and tumble play? Go for it. Taking risks in nature — I’m all for it (I may cringe in the background, but I won’t stop him), pretending to find a treasure and outrun a volcano — sure, sounds fun. Adventures, treasure hunts, tree climbing, creek wading, tower building — a world of fun, risky, messy, and even rough, play awaits.
But the glorification of violence, killing, blood, and gore — why? Why would this be anything we would want for our boys? I look into my son’s blue eyes and those cheeks that haven’t completely lost that babyishness and I see innocence. There is no reason to rush that innocence out of our boys. They have plenty of time to grow up.
One day it will come. Already, a few guns have snuck in with seemingly innocent playsets and I’ve let it go — I am not against some imaginary play in that genre, I just don’t think it has to dominate every aspect of how boys play and the toy aisle marketed to them. I know one day he’ll come home from a friend’s house and have a new interest a violent video game. We will cross that bridge when it comes. We will talk about it and the problem of violence in our society.
But for now, I’m savoring his innocence, his sweetness, how he sees the good in every situation and how he always looks on the bright side. Children are beacons of light in this world and I’ll do everything I can so that his light keeps shining happy and bright.
Let’s let boys be little, let’s let them be children, let’s give them the full and bright childhood they deserve.