He wants a Barbie for Christmas, she wants a Football

In case you haven’t noticed, the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is upon us, causing us all to attempt to juggle the normal routine of our daily lives plus the additional events and frivolity which come along with turning our calendars over to the month of December.  The onset of the holiday season holds different meaning and causes different reactions for us all.  For some, the season is a time filled with parties and get-togethers; a time to socialize and celebrate the joy of the season.  For others, this time of year causes great anxiety.  For others still, once the leaves have fallen from the trees, it’s time to begin compiling a holiday wish list.  And of course, there are those who delight in fulfilling those wishes.

Let’s talk about those wish lists and the process of selecting gifts, particularly for children. So very often, we may not consider the importance of thinking beyond the gifts themselves, considering their larger impact in the lives of their recipient and others.  Further, how often do we actually stop and consider how heavily we are influenced throughout the process of gift selection?  Emanuella Grinberg writes about this issue in an article for CNN Living entitled “When Kids Play Across Gender Lines” and discusses the ways in which many products, particularly toys, are marketed and packaged along rigid gender lines.  Grinberg includes commentary from Carrie Goldman, author of the book, “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.”

Goldman states, Removing gender-specific connotations from packaging or displays sends the message to children that they’re open to everyone.  When stores separate toys into aisles for girls and boys, however, they learn that anyone who deviates from their designated shelves deserves to be ridiculed.  We can’t truly address bullying without talking about the fear of people perceived as different.”

Psychology Professor and co-founder of SPARK (Sexualization Protest Action Resistance Knowledge), Deborah Tolman, says that restricting toys like train sets to boys and dress-up to girls can also stifle their creativity while simultaneously reinforcing antiquated gender roles.  Tolman states “Kids get a lot of ideas early from play about what they can do, what they like and what they can aspire to.  By making those themes gender specific, it leaves out a whole range of possibilities.”  Tolman makes the point that offering gender neutral play is not about removing blue and pink packaging from toy store shelves or steering children away from toys which are traditionally thought of as being more masculine or feminine, but simply allowing children to feel as though all options are available.  “It’s about making all these ways of playing part of the human experience. Anxiety about gender has created codes that have nothing to do with how people should be people,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with pink. It’s the meaning we infuse it with.”

So what does all this have to do with the prevention of domestic and sexual violence?  We know in order to begin preventing these issues, we need to start looking at the social norms which exist around us that allow for domestic and sexual violence to occur in the first place.  Two of the social norms related to domestic and sexual violence are limited roles for women and narrow definitions of masculinity.  When children begin learning at a young age about what men and women supposedly should and shouldn’t do, and those ideas are reinforced by the toys they play with, the advertisements they see, the movies they watch, and the things they hear, the social norms which create and promote ideas surrounding gender roles and what men and women can or can’t do become reinforced.

When children enter a toy store and it’s very apparent which toys are meant for girls and which are meant for boys because of the color schemes, the packaging, and nature of the store’s design, the children are already receiving many messages about their gender; what’s acceptable, what’s not, and how  males and females are expected to behave.  Couple these experiences with advertising geared toward children, tweens, and teens, and it starts to become painfully obvious how young people today are socialized in ways that stringently dictate their gender roles.

The question then, is how we begin to combat these experiences.  For one answer, we can look overseas to Britain’s largest department store, Harrod’s.  The store has garnered much praise for its revamped Toy Kingdom in which toys are no longer categorized along gendered lines, but instead, are grouped into six interactive ‘worlds.’  What’s more, A Mighty Girl (found at www.amightygirl.com) is a group that sells, tracks, and blogs about gifts and toys which are empowering for young girls and help break traditional gender role stereotypes for children.  They have a holiday gift guide available on their website and plenty of thoughtful resources and blogs for adults to read too.

As adults, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the harms of a gendered society and the impact such an experience may have on young children and the promulgation of domestic and sexual violence.  To work towards preventing domestic and sexual violence, we can take the step to educate others on the importance of talking about social norms, gender roles, and how they impact our lives and the existence of these issues.  If we have children in our lives, we can make conscientious decisions to purchase toys and gifts for them that do not promote antiquated gender roles and stereotypes, but promote equality and creativity.  Opening a world filled with possibility to a child leaves a world filled with possibility for us all.


Citation: Grinberg, Emanuella.  “When Kids Play Across Gender Lines.”   CNN Living.  http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/27/living/harrods-gender-neutral-toys/index.html