Encouraging Gender-Neutral Play
I always wanted a little girl. After having two boys, I yearned for pink and bows. My entire house was filled with cars, trucks, superheroes and whoopee cushions and I longed to see a Barbie or doll stroller among it all.
Last year, my husband, sons and I were blessed to welcome a daughter/baby sister into our home. She really is the light of our home and not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for all that he has blessed me with. Baby M thinks her two older brothers are the cat’s meow.
She insists on doing everything they do and follows them anywhere they go. While they are already her protectors, she is already their little angel. When they build Lego castles and have a massive superhero war, their baby sister is right there alongside them, ensuring the heroes all fight to the end – making grunting sounds and all.
Our home is filled with ‘boy toys’. So I recently went out and bought baby M a doll. It was an emotional experience because of the importance dolls played in my life as a child, not to mention it would be the first real doll in our home. I perused the aisles, wanting to find one that somewhat looked like her. I imagined baby M clutching her doll everywhere she went, sleeping with it, fighting for it. When I presented it to her on her first birthday, she was definitely curious. I held my breath, my heart internally leaping with happiness over the thought of baby M playing with my childhood Cabbage Patch Kids.
After a few minutes of inspecting the doll I had ever so carefully chosen, she chucked it over her shoulder, grabbed one of her brothers’ racing cars and began making a zooming sound with her mouth as she drove it around single-handedly.
Now, I have never believed that toys are meant specifically for one gender or another. I know they are marketed that way and I personally see nothing wrong with boys playing with dolls and girls playing with trucks. We’ve had a toy kitchen in our home long before baby M came along and my boys cook us all kinds of meals with their pretend food.
I think much of how we choose toys for our kids comes from marketing. Toys companies teach children from a young age that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. My sons loved pink until they started going to school. Then all of a sudden, pink was ONLY for girls. We are surrounded by society’s assumptions of what we can and cannot do, based on South Asian culture. I believe that in order for our children to build confidence and self-esteem, we must let them be who they choose to be, regardless of what society thinks.
Peer pressure also plays a role in how our children play. My second born loves to cook (and eat for that matter). So when we decided to get him a toy kitchen for his birthday, my very Indian mother was completely opposed to it. She suggested that I should stop trying to turn my boy into a girl. She’s been living and working in Canada for almost 50 years but can’t fathom why I’d give my son a kitchen. It was then that I realized how deeply ingrained gender-specific play really is, especially in our culture.
I think toy companies are picking up on a forward-thinking parent’s need for equality among toys and I see ads for “Working Barbie” or Lego for girls. Encouraging girls to build buildings and houses and cities with pink and purple Lego is definitely a step up from having them brush a My Little Pony’s hair all day and I really hope we keep heading in the direction of gender-neutral play.
I understand baby M’s preference for her brothers’ toys and enjoy watching her play with them. I was a tomboy as a child and I secretly like that she seems to be one as well. However, I think my expectations of seeing her playing quietly with what Toys R Us would deem “girl toys” is definitely changing. I am mourning the lack of interest in pink dolls but I have to admit, I’m rather proud of my girl’s affinity towards excavators and bulldozers. Every time we are driving past a tractor-trailer, baby M begins pointing and shrieking with excitement as her brothers explain what the truck is doing.
The most important thing to me is that my children bond with each other. I want them to cherish and respect their interrelationships, long after my husband and I are gone. I also want to encourage free play with whatever holds their interest. If they are outside running around, who am I to tell them which toy they should be burying in their sandbox? Be it a monster truck or decapitated Barbie (gulp), I’m going to start staying quiet and letting them be who they are.
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