Sunday, October 5, 2014

Boys and girls and toys

In a past life, I was a preschool teacher who was often confronted with the concern that I was somehow impeding my students’ growth when I let boys play with their preferred dump trucks and girls play with dolls and dress up clothes. In the meantime, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in psychology, which has given me a wealth of theoretical and applied training in child development, allowing me to think about the issue more scientifically. Are we socializing children to be more girly or more masculine? Or a boys and girls inherently different, thus their preferences for activities are as well?

This question has come up more recently for me for two reasons. First, I attended my annual meeting of other researchers who study psychology and hormones (www.ISPNE.org) in Montreal. The focus of this meeting was sex differences, which resulted in a vibrant discussion of when findings in our research are a result of sex (biological processes), and when they are gender (socially developed within a culture), and how to know the difference. Second, very important people in my life have had babies in the past year, thus I have been spending a lot of time around new moms, and looking for gifts for new babies. Many of these new moms have shared their concerns about getting too much pink and frilly gear for their new little girl, or limiting their new son’s toys to plush toy footballs and Thomas the Train figures. So I continued to wonder:

Are we gender socializing kids with the toys we give them?

I went into the literature on the topic and found a paper by Dr. Janice Hassett of Emory University and her colleagues regarding toy preferences that lends some useful insight into this question. Dr. Hassett’s argument was that the issue of whether male and female toys preferences among human children is socialized or biological is nearly impossible to disentangle. Instead, she went to our close relatives, the rhesus monkey, whose male and female members demonstrate very different behaviors across the lifespan, similar to us. Her hypothesis was that rhesus monkeys were not exposed to the media and marketing gender socialization that occurs for humans, and therefore their child behavior might help us disentangle how much of toy preferences may be biological, as opposed to socialized.


To do this study, she used 34 rhesus monkeys who were each given seven 25 minute play opportunities. During these play sessions a “wheeled” toy was placed on one side of the play area and a “plush” toy was placed on the other side. The “wheeled” toys varied between a wagon, a dump truck, car, truck, construction vehicle, and shopping cart. The “plush” toys available to the monkeys were Winnie-the-Pooh, Raggety Ann, a koala hand puppet, an armadillo, a teddy bear, Scooby Doo, and a turtle. They then videotaped the interactions of these monkeys with the toys, making note of how much time each monkey spent playing with each type of toy.

They found that male monkeys spent more time with the “wheeled” toys than “plush” toys, while the female monkeys played equally with “wheeled” and “plush” toys. This effect appeared to be consistent even after accounting for the effects of age and rank within the social colony. This even further support the notion that these differences are innate, rather than shaped in monkey social culture. This is exactly what has been found in children, that boys display a preference for “wheeled” toys, while girls don’t prefer either type of toy.

So, back to the original question. These results would suggest that we are not doing wrong by our young boys by buying them what they want: dump trucks and fire engines, but we may be limiting our girls by limiting their toys to dolls. More importantly, this study suggests that kids are going to have toy preferences because of the androgens they were exposed to in utero that made them into a male or female in the first place; not necessarily because they were given gender socialized toys. Boys and girls are going to find different activities interesting and attractive, no matter what you give them. The tricky part becomes how we reinforce kids for the toy preferences, or lack of preferences they show. If you only want to play with the child when they are playing with a certain toy and not others, you are going to be increasing the likelihood that they will want to play with that toy again. Not to beat a dead horse, but that’s just one more reason why child-directed play can be really helpful in learning to observe and prevent limiting a child's interests.

Given these findings, I thought I would share a few of my favorite go to items for anyone interesting in updating their collection. Normally I don’t do this, but in my experience as a teacher and child psychologist so far I have collected a few toys that are useful for kids of all ages and genders. I would never be caught without them.

1. Today I Feel Silly by  Jamie Lee Curtis (http://www.amazon.com/Today-Feel-Silly-Other-Moods/dp/0060245603):  This book follow a young girl through all the different feelings that occur in children. Not surprisingly, they are all the feelings that adults feel too, but without an awareness of what may happen to your body.

2. Kimochis: (http://www.amazon.com/Kimochis-Cloud-Box-Set/dp/B001QVAWRS): I have the cloud, but there are several different Kimochis to fit all sorts of child temperaments. Kimochis help kids learn how to manage having more than one feeling at a time, and also help kids understand how feelings influence behaviors and relationships. Each one has its own story you can read with a child, the stuffed toys, and then the feelings pouches that go with the character. Despite the important lessons they teach, kids absolutely love them!

3. Sculpey (http://www.amazon.com/Sculpey-Polymer-Color-Sampler-Multicolor/dp/B0000CGB68/ref=pd_sim_ac_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=06W6ESJX9N77Z6CJCDE6): this is a polymer clay that doesn’t dry out and isn’t messy. I buy the multicolor packs and kids often want to take it home with them to use at home. I use it to help kids who can’t sit still and need something to manipulate with their hands, but I have no shortage of adults who reach for it on my desk either. Other than that it doesn’t dry out, I like Sculpey best because it requires the heat from your hands to get soft, so the more you manipulate it, the better it gets. This is inherently reinforcing to kids and adults.

4. Goldieblox (http://www.goldieblox.com/collections/all): Given that female preferences are less rigid than men, there is a lot of room for better toys for girls that aren't limited to dolls. As such I'm a big fan of these which promote "engineering" and building skills for girls.

Hassett, J. M., Siebert, E. R., & Wallen, K. (2008). Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Hormones and behavior, 54(3), 359-364.

8 comments:

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  2. So, if you don't want your child to get obese get them toys that bring physical activities out of them.
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  4. How big of a plush toy should you buy? You don't want one too big as that isn't very practical, giant stuffed elephant toy

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