How Your Baby Toys Shaped Your Adulthood

Were you the “pretty princess” or the “strong superhero”?

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A couple of weeks ago, my niece turned two. Maybe I’m just inexperienced at these things, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to buy a toddler. She’s old enough to tinker with baby toys, but not quite old enough to have preferences about them. She’ll drool and laugh at anything you hand her.

Somewhere in the midst of my gift-buying dilemma, my mother talked me into going halfsies on a tiny, wooden play mixer. Apparently, my niece’s present from her parents was going to be one of those big Melissa and Doug play kitchens, and they requested that any other gifts complement theirs.

Which, don’t get me wrong, the play kitchen was a nice gift, and my niece seemed to love it (if her nonstop squealing is anything to go by), but it does make me wonder: why the kitchen specifically?

My niece only knows one word (it’s “puppy”) so it’s not as if she asked for the kitchen. Her hobbies include eating blueberries and throwing tantrums. She has no interest in cooking — at least not yet.

One scroll through the Melissa and Doug website and I see a multitude of toys to play with — there’s a firetruck, a tool belt, a drum set, and an animal care center. Had she been a boy, I have a gut feeling she would have ended up with the play workbench or toolbox instead.

For the record, I don’t think my brother and sister-in-law had an ulterior, sexist motive when they bought the play kitchen, but this experience has made me think a lot about the role of toys in gender socialization and stereotypes.

Whether we want to believe it or not, our culture, coupled with the immense influence of advertisers, push us to buy toys that reinforce gender stereotypes — and it’s affecting us even into adulthood.

Toys have a more important function than just providing fun

Most of the time, parents think of toys as tools for fun. Unless you want your child to scream and cry all day long, you have to give them some form of stimulation. But, beyond providing a distraction, toys engage the five senses, improve coordination and motor skills, and release a child’s imagination.

Of course, not all toys affect children in the same way. Think about army men: those little green hunks of plastic force young kids to use ingenuity, and think strategically. Barbie dolls, on the other hand, help children access their imagination. Children assign narratives to these dolls, and sometimes even use them to resolve real-life conflicts.

As kids get older, they begin using toys to roleplay. These play objects are their first chance to experience cultural adult customs. Little girls act like miniature mothers to their plastic baby dolls and little boys become builders and conductors with legos and train sets. Not only does roleplay allow kids to figure out who they might want to be, but it also teaches them the limits of society. The toys we give our children teach them what roles are culturally acceptable for them to assume — and which ones aren’t.

This is a message that Becky Francis, a Professor of Education at Roehampton University, has been preaching for a long time. “Different types of toys give different messages about what’s appropriate for boys and girls to do, and have different educational content — both elements are important and might have a bearing on schooling and career choices later,” she says.

In a small study, Francis found that while boys tended to receive toys that related to machinery and construction, girls were pushed toward more feminine options — like motherhood or hairdressing.

More than that, Francis also discovered educational differences between gender-specific toys. “Boys toys tend to contain didactic information, with technical instructions and fitting things together with Lego and Meccano, whereas girls’ toys tend to be around imaginative and creative play, which develop different skills,” she says.

As Francis suggests, repeatedly boxing children into specific roles does have an impact on them well into adulthood.

Your toys may have influenced your career

Although women have made great strides in fighting for equality in the workplace, there are still plenty of fields divided by sex. For instance, while men dominate occupations like engineering, software development and law enforcement, jobs like nursing, social work and teaching are comprised mostly of women.

I think most people can recognize that this isn’t due to a lack of ability. Men are more than capable of being nurses just as women would have no problem as software developers — so why does it happen?

As Francis says, boys and girls get thrown into different directions. When boys are cast as innovative problem solvers, it only makes sense for them to pursue this role as adults. In the same vein, girls are pushed to assume a domestic and nurturing part in playtime so its only natural for them to focus on these skills during adulthood. Rather than being free to pursue their own interests, children are taught to abide by gender stereotypes.

This isn’t to say that toys are solely responsible for career choices — or that they would even prevent a determined child from going against the grain. But, they do play a big role in the culture that continues to push men and women into certain occupations.

It isn’t about the parents, it’s about the advertising

I don’t think a lot of parents have sexist intentions when they pick out toys for their children. Most of the time, parents are simply manipulated by a toy industry that capitalizes on gendered marketing.

Think about the toy commercials you see on TV. Sweet, smiley girls are regularly featured playing house with Barbies while boys blast each other with nerf guns. When you shop online, all you need to do is type “toys for boys” or “toys for girls” into Amazon’s search bar to be met with an endless list of gender-appropriate objects. Gendered marketing is even apparent in physical stores like Walmart or Target — it’s not difficult to discern which aisles are meant for boys and which are meant for girls. There’s a distinct separation.

Interestingly enough, it didn’t always use to be this way. In the 1920s, girls were frequently advertised toys that prepared them for domestic motherhood while boys were marketed building blocks and construction sets to train them for a life of hard labor.

By the 1970s, gendered marketing was beginning to go extinct with the rise of women in the workforce. We were well on our way to blissful, gender-neutral toy advertising — until things changed in the 1990s.

Toy companies began to see the profit in exploiting gender stereotypes like the “beautiful princess” or “strong action-hero”, and started marketing specific toys toward specific genders. This is a trend that continues well into the present.

From infancy, toy companies are whispering in the ears of parents and telling them what toys their child will like. It doesn’t help that, as they get older, kids become susceptible to this marketing as well. They see ads of what kids like them they are into, and immediately want to conform.

Those who protest gender-neutral advertising seem to be afraid that this change will result in a loss of individuality — that our children will end up playing with colorless cubes or androgynous Barbies. The solution to gendered marketing isn’t to eliminate the differences in toys but to stop pushing only specific toys on certain children.

When we do away with the stigma that only girls play with dolls and only boys play with action figures, we stop limiting our kids. We give them more freedom instead of less — and they have the opportunity to assume any role they want.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats.

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