12/15/2015 06:43 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2016

Stop Perpetuating Gender Types with Children's Christmas Toys


As hurried holiday shoppers fill their baskets with gifts, they confront the recurring dilemma of too much choice. So naturally to make their shopping more efficient, people adopt short-cuts--making lists and a plan of attack before entering a mall or trying to pick up all their gifts in one place. One such short-cut, though, should give us all pause: gender-targeted toys.

The idea behind gender-targeted toys can be noble, seeming to offer people a way to save time and money by selecting gifts quickly that have a high probability of being enjoyed by the child. Moreover, toy companies even justify their gender-targeting based on anthropological studies of how children play. By watching groups of boys and girls select and manipulate objects and interact with toys and each other, researchers infer children's preferences for shapes and activities. This suggests hurried shoppers can rest assured that their selections are not only made efficiently, the efficacy of their choice is scientifically validated. Whew!

But not so fast.... Let's back up a bit and question what led to these observations in the first place.

We, as a collective, socialize boys and girls to be different. We create and then amplify gender-based differences and then pass these along through both overt and subtle messages. Aside from the obvious anatomical differences, boys and girls are much more alike than they are different. Just a cursory scan of the broader scientific evidence makes this clear.

First, contrary to popular belief, there is no male brain and female brain. Five years ago, Lise Eliot summarized hundreds of studies that offer this conclusion. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences published results of the first investigation of features across the entire human brain, which concluded human brains could not be categorized by gender. Thus despite our fascination with notions of a pink brain and a blue brain, the facts simply do not support this. Women and men, boys and girls, process information in the same way. Females are not more emotional or creative or "right brain" and males are not more rational or logical or "left brain."

Second, well-intentioned adults begin typecasting and constraining their child's choices and activities as early as infants. For example, when males and females are confronted with a three-month-old and are told it is a girl, they are more likely to give it a doll; when told it is a boy they are more likely to give it a football (choices were a small football, a doll, or a teething ring). Similarly, parents are likely to underestimate their 11-month-old daughters' abilities to crawl down a slope and over-estimate their 11-month-old sons' abilities.

We should stop gender-targeted toys because the more we typecast our children's activities, the more we reinforce traditional gender roles, possibly inadvertently constraining their future choice of activities. Everyone is different, and letting go of gendered toys encourages adults to nurture a child's individuality rather than channeling his or her play along a preordained path.

Additionally, using gender as a basis for toy selection is only as accurate as the science behind the alleged differences. Recently, I was curious how people think genders differ. At the Georgetown University Women's Leadership Institute we asked more than 200 people what they thought was the largest difference between women and men in the workplace. Results surprised me in their lack of cohesion. Respondents thought women talk too much and not enough; men are too impetuous and confrontational as well as too avoidant. Thus while most people could agree that men and women are different, consensus as to how they differ remains elusive.

Finally, at a broader, community level, gender-typed toys retard our progress toward gender parity. Some child-development experts think that male and female play patterns have emerged earlier in this century than in the last one as a result of earlier socialization with peers and earlier media exposure. We should be concerned at this evidence that our society is going backward rather than moving forward. My research, similarly, shows that millennials are no more gender blind than were past generations--men are still expected to be the primary breadwinner and women the primary care-taker.

The expectations set by gender-typing constrain everyone. Let's stop perpetuating them through toys and play.