01/09/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2012

On Praising Tomboys and Rejecting Feminine Boys

Mid-way through last year, my daughter's pirate obsession was born. She'd always shown a proclivity towards what I would call "boy toys," beginning with her affinity for climbing fences before her first birthday and her inclination towards playing strictly with balls. So when her obsession with all things pirate emerged, randomly, one warm summer day when she was just two, I wasn't the least bit surprised.

Frankly, the unexpected fascination with certain toys or dress-up clothes that preschoolers display is part of their charm. Who doesn't chuckle at the sight of a little girl wearing a Tinkerbell dress mixed with a pirate sword and a cat mask strolling through Trader Joes? But as my daughter's love for toys traditionally associated with little boys has evolved into a passion for Spiderman, dinosaurs and robots, I've noticed a disturbing trend towards reverse sexism placed on kids as young as 2 and 3 years old.

Everyone applauds my daughter's tom-boyishness. It's charming that she chose to be a skeleton for Halloween instead of a princess. She is strong, independent, different, other parents remark. In reality, what they are doing is praising the qualities about her that we associate with men. On the other end of the spectrum are the examples of boys her same age who like to play with Barbies, dolls or ride a pink bicycle down the street.

Instead of applauding a boy's affinity towards learning to nurture and take-care-of, unfortunately, so many fret that he is too "girlie" or worse, will he be... gay? What is happening is this: a young boy's affinity towards toys and items associated with girls is considered weak, too sensitive, and too feminine. While a girl's affinity towards traditionally male toys demonstrates her strength and is praise worthy.

Disturbing, much?

Notice what happened last year when the creative director from J.Crew was featured in the catalogue with her 5-year-old son painting his toe nails hot pink. Religious groups and conservative talk show hosts across the country cried foul. Last year, one blogger spoke honestly about her son's love for princess dresses and girlie toys; his affinity towards all things girl led to a constant barrage of unsolicited advice from "random moms" about how to steer him towards more boy things. Why must we assume this mother wanted to steer her young son towards boy things?

Why can't a kid just be 3 or 4 without us dumping gender identity issues on them?

Truth be told, I have little to do with what toys my child wants to play with. She shows me that she loves dinosaurs and robots and pirates, along with Legos and puzzles, so my job is to encourage her to play with what she enjoys. As adults, do we consider the world through the eyes of the children enough? Does an avid science-fiction reader lose her choice to read that book because her partner despises science fiction or isn't comfortable with it? Of course not. So they when why would we limit a little boy's desire to play Barbie or Polly Pockets?

Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It offers some provocative counter-arguments to these broadly accepted notions, ones that I, too, am guilty of assuming; specifically that girls and boys are hard-wired towards different toys. Her conclusion is there is "little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains" and she explains that until the age of one, kids prefer dolls over other toys, and by preschool, children learn which toys are socially acceptable for their gender mainly by watching older children play.

Based on Eliot's conclusions, isn't the real question: Why aren't adults indifferent towards what toys children are drawn to, if preschoolers are indifferent to it despite learning what is the "right" kind of toy to play with by observing older kids?

Ultimately, I think the solution is not to force gender neutral toys on our kids but to instead be aware of our own pre-conceived notions of what we think our kids should play with or should wear and be more open with how our own discomfort or stereotypes are unfairly pushed on such young children. Let's let them play with what they want to play with and wear what they are most comfortable in.

Eliot astutely reminds us that "kids rise or fall according to what we believe about them." In that vein, if my daughter is praised for her proclivity to traditionally male toys without public commentary that she will become a, gasp, lesbian, then why don't we praise little boys for playing with female toys and, in turn, developing his nurturing, sensitive side? Teaching the lesson that things associated with females are considered weak or soft and things associated with men are considered strong, at such a young age, is a dangerous and slippery slope.