Gender neutral toys: Why it's so important to let children choose
"Mum, I might ask Santa for a camera," said my seven-year-old on the way to school one morning last week. She likes to be organised.
"Oh – there’s a blue one and a pink one," said my six-year-old. "But Santa will know to bring the pink one, because pink is for girls."
"Well," I answered, "Is that really true? Don’t you have lots of blue clothes and toys at home, and don’t you both say that blue is your favourite colour?"
I looked in the rear-view mirror. They were having a think about this.
"Yes, but when they make a pink one and a blue one of a toy, the pink one is for girls," said the seven-year-old after a minute.
"True, but you know there’s no rule that says girls can’t have blue and boys can’t have pink. It’s just a marketing thing – people who make toys want us to buy two of everything. If we think girls can’t have blue, and boys can’t have pink, we’ll buy more of everything, instead of sharing and passing things on."
They had another little think about this, then agreed that my eldest could indeed ask Santa for the blue camera if she so wished. Or the pink camera. All options still open.
It’s interesting to see how ingrained in them it is that pink is for girls, even though they’ve never been told that at home, and the little brother in their lives has every pink toy going. He’s the third child, so it’s hand-me-downs all the way for him.
And perhaps it’s unavoidable – they are surrounded by pink-is-for-girls doctrine everywhere – clothes, toys, stationery, school bags, duvet covers, hairbands and, memorably, a toy hoover that has 'Just For Girls' printed on it.
I am at fault too – I haven’t gone out of my way to sell them a gender-neutral message either. When my eldest was born, I bought all the pink. Partly because that’s mostly what was in the shops, and also because, truthfully, I quite like pink. (I know, I’m letting the side down).
But I bought navy and yellow and red and blue too, and she often went to crèche in jeans and a mud-beige top – because those packs of four T-shirts always seem to come with one inexplicably awful colour.
Now, at six and almost eight years of age, my daughters pick their own clothes. Often they want pink and sparkly, sometimes they want dusky blue or bright yellow, or even mud-beige.
It would be foolish of me to assume that their more-than-occasional preference for pink and sparkly is down to some innate programming. It’s very much a product of what they were dressed in by me, what’s available in the shops and what’s on view all around them. And all of that is OK, until they start to think they must go for the pink option. Until they start to see rules and restrictions, where of course there are none. Until they start to categorise themselves as being in the pink camp or not. Until they start to see unnecessary divisions between males and females. So anything that contradicts that message is, I think, a good thing.
Which is why I was surprised to see some negative reaction to US retailer Target’s recent announcement that it would no longer use signage that said 'Girls' or 'Boys' in toy aisles. The toys themselves are not moving or changing in any way; this is just a small change to the signs.
Not labelling toys – not putting children in one set of toys or another – is something that most people see as sensible, but there was outcry in some quarters. Commenters threatened to boycott the store, pulling out that handy phrase, "It’s political correctness gone mad."
By directing kids to one set of toys or another – whether through signage, labelling, or the colour pink – we’re restricting them from choice and reducing their options. It’s not something we’d want to do with careers or opportunities for adults, so why start with toys?
A few days after the camera conversation, I was out for a walk with my six-year-old. We passed a small girl taking a photo with a smartphone. My daughter remarked that her sister would love something like that.
"Though actually, she’d love the blue camera too," she added. "And she’s very lucky to have a mum who lets her have blue things and follow her own destiny."
Destiny no less.
I decided to take the unearned compliment without quibble. And to enjoy that it’s still possible to change a six-year-old’s mind. I don’t think either of my daughters will stop looking at pink and sparkly dresses, and I don’t want them to, but they might stop saying "pink is for girls" and that’s a good thing.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.