This post is part of a currently three part post on
Redefining Femininity for Ourselves and our Girls
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Part Three: Children’s Play and Gender Stereotypes
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!