Children’s Play: Redefining Femininity for Ourselves and our Girls Part Three

This post is part of a currently three part post on

Redefining Femininity for Ourselves and our Girls

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Part One:  Keeping up Appearances:  What Makes Clothing “Feminine?”

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Part Two: It’s Not the Pressure from the Guys that Causes Women to be Appearance-Focused

Part Three:  Children’s Play and Gender Stereotypes

Chef, pirate, adventurer, V's play includes all these roles and more...

In a previous generation, my little gal, V, would be labeled a “tomboy” for some of her interests. I have always hated that expression, and I’m glad it is gradually being phased out of popular vocabulary, or at least detached from its former negative connotations, because it basically limits femininity to a very narrow group of interests.  My daughter loves trains, dragons, dinosaurs, space, fixing things with tools, knights and jousting, animals, and cars.  She also gently feeds her baby dolls, mixes up food in her play kitchen (often it is a side dish of matchbox car), and likes to dress up in beads and hats.  Her favorite colors are “pourple” and “bah-lak,” both a stereotypically feminine and a traditionally masculine color.  She likes shoes and has a very specific reason for selecting a particular pair (black, red, or purple) often matching her shoes and her bows based on color.

Both my husband M, and I feel it is important that V is exposed to a variety of play.   Loving all things English, I was excited to play tea party with my little one.  M is thrilled to take her to the game store where tabletop games involving knights, skaven, ogres, and elves are played alongside complex board games.  We encourage her to develop a variety of interests, and I check out books from the library based on these ever-changing topics every week.  We are currently reading about elephants, knights, Clifford (“Cliffs”), Halloween, shapes, and Winnie-the-Pooh. V also selected a children’s picture book about the Trojan War (?!); looking at this book has kept her unusually silent for minutes beyond her usual attention span.  Perhaps we are raising a future classicist, who knows?  V dances to music, gardens, cooks, does “arht prohjects” and “kickbahls.”  I like to think she is a well-rounded kid.

I don’t think any of V’s play particularly connects to her “femininity” or “masculinity.”  She is a toddler.  She is pretty androgynous, as far as I’m concerned.  Yet I still hear parents talking about the preferences their children have for toys that are associated with their sex, as if that was no doing of their own.  While I know that kids often do fixate on a particular interest, and that sometimes there are gender role differences that might come into play, I do wonder whether these parents have exposed their kids to other options.  Have they bought their boys a tea set or given them a “dolly?”  Have they given their girls a “Thomas the Train” set or did they select the “Disney Princess” book instead?  And what about the relatives?  I know that most of the toys in our house have been bequeathed by our mothers who, God love them, have preserved the stuff in their respective attics/basements since our childhood.  Luckily for us, our moms had a mix of toys to present to V, most of them being stuff like animals, or Fisher Price airplane and castle sets, or stacking rings.  Still, we have heard the off comment from friends and family members who expect our girl to be playing with traditionally girly sorts of toys.  I’m glad that we have the ultimate deciding power for what is in our household and also the stuff to speak up about what we hope to teach V through play.

I have heard parents taking the opposite routes with their kids, decrying anything that the kid prefers that falls along traditional gender roles.  I think that sends a message as well.  What I’m inclined to believe is that many adults have difficulty disassociating toys and gender and that difficulty affects our attitudes towards our children’s play.  If we listen to our kids interests, and expose them to a wide variety of play, keeping away from the ultra-violent or super saccharin sorts of toys, most kids’ interests will include a little of the stereotypical both.  Play is one of the most important learning tools for kids, especially in the toddler and preschool years, and it is truly a shame to limit kids’ play based on antiquated notions of what is or isn’t masculine or feminine.  Our boys can benefit from learning tenderness and gentleness with care of baby dolls and our girls can find their strength in crashing cars and kicking balls with fervor.  And vice versa.

 

Linking up with Shell’s Things I Can’t Say for Pour Your Heart Out!


11 responses to “Children’s Play: Redefining Femininity for Ourselves and our Girls Part Three

  • Cat von Hassel-Davies

    I noticed when parents didn’t push their children towards a particular toy they would play with whatever got their fancy at the time. A girl could play with a truck and vice versa. I wish more parents thought you like you. You are an excellent example.

    Hugs!!

    • Pamela

      It’s true, Cat that kids interests are varied and inclusive. Today, V picked out Star Wars, knight, and dinosaur books at the library. She also picked out the pink princess sticker from the sticker bin. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Juliana

    My girls are interested in all kinds of toys. We have a train table, dinosaurs, dump trucks, matchbox cars, etc. We also have a ton of baby dolls and strollers, Barbies, etc. My girls are interested in all of it. One thing I have noticed is HOW they play with the toys. My girls have never made the dinosaurs fight each other or act aggressive. Our dinosaurs are nice, family-centered creatures (like in the PBS show “Dinosaur Train”). When boys come over to play, I have noticed they are usually aggressive with the dinosaurs and pretty much everything they play with. They may play with the dolls, but usually the dolls aren’t treated with quite the amount of care that comes from the girls (to put it mildly!) This to me is the main gender difference, not in what they play with but how they play with it.

    • Pamela

      Interesting observation! I’m sure there exists research on this topic about aggression, gender, and play, but I need to look into it. Unsure whether this would be a nature/nurture issue.

  • Megan Wittling (@bestoffates)

    Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? And I agree, I think most people’s interests include a wide spectrum. And includes dinosaurs.

  • Shell Things (@shellthings)

    I have boys who like to play with “girl” things sometimes- I think they just see everything as a toy and not as for boys or for girls. I like it that way.

  • Denise

    My three and a half year old is dressing up as Foofa for Halloween! He loves it. His favorite color is pink! He loves to play with the toy kitchen and the baby doll he has.

    I can tell you there are adults in his life who find this rather uncomfortable because of the social “norms” and who truly believe that liking pink will alter his sexuality or something.

    I find boys and girls naturally gravitate to things that interest them and often can fit into those stereotypical roles- but honestly, if a boy wants to play with a doll- I think that is sweet and mimicing tender behavior. And if a girl wants to get physical, why not? It will ony help her land on her feet! :-)

    • Pamela

      Thanks for commenting Denise! Yes, gender stereotyping children’s play is often tied in with adults’ homophobia! Just another reason to provide our kids with open and inclusive options, in my opinion! Sometimes kids do gravitate towards traditionally masculine or feminine things, and there is nothing wrong with that either; it comes down to choice and giving kids a chance to form interests and identity without massive gender oriented parental controls from the time of conception. Thanks for sharing!

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