From girls who love Hot Wheels to boys with Barbies: Why experts say gender roles have no place in the toy aisle
Can boys play with toy kitchens? Can girls race Hot Wheels? Experts say abandoning gender roles in the playroom can lead to creative and nurturing kids. (Photo: Getty Creative)
More than 70 percent of chefs in the United States are male, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, still a tweet shared by Cardi B last week showing a photo of a little boy playing with a toy kitchen raised some eyebrows and some voices.
Many Twitter users replied to the rapper's tweet, expressing concern that a little boy playing with something traditionally marketed as a "girl's toy" would confuse the child later in life.
But Cardi was quick to set the record straight.
"Y'all worry about if this gay or not," the mom of both a son and a daughter said in her post. "Stop being so close-minded and dumb."
The backlash against the photo was swift but others jumped to the defense of boys playing with traditionally non-male toys, sharing pictures of their adult sons cooking in the kitchen and images of boys playing with other toys traditionally aimed toward girls.
"This is how everyone should do parenting," one Twitter user said in response to the photos. "Letting kids be kids without gender roles to worry about."
So, what should parents do if their child wants a toy or shows interest in an activity that's not traditionally geared toward their gender?
Experts say it's all about supporting kids and reevaluating the gender stereotypes and roles that have been handed down to us.
According to Jason Bainbridge, a professor of media and communication at the University of South Australia, much of the focus on what's marketed to boys and girls still remains in our unspoken social norms.
"There's still a long way to go in eliminating gender assumptions about children's toys," Bainbridge wrote in 2018 for The Conversation. "Beyond the category of action figures, makeup and fashion-related play is still explicitly marketed to girls, while train sets, construction toys and model kits will generally have boys pictured on the packaging."
But there have been moves by retailers and toy companies to remove gender stereotypes from the playroom.
In Aug. 2015, Target announced they were creating gender neutral toy aisles, following suit after Toys 'R' Us and Amazon did the same in their toy departments. In recent years, companies like Mattel and Hasbro have stopped marketing some of their lines, including dolls, to only girls or boys. And, many stores that sell toys have replaced "girls" and "boys" toy sections with one department filled simply with toys for all kids, regardless of their gender.
Judith Blakemore, a psychologist and associate dean of arts and sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Ind., primarily researches the development of gender roles. Her study of 100 children's toys revealed that girl-focused toys are generally associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing and domestic skills, while boys' toys were more violent, competitive and dangerous.
Blakemore tells Yahoo Life that "strongly gender-typed toys" (think: pretend makeup kits for girls or toy guns for boys) might encourage attributes that parents actually don't want to foster in their kids.
"For girls, this would include a focus on attractiveness and appearance," says Blakemore. "For boys, the emphasis on violence and aggression might be less than desirable in the long run."
Florida mom Megan Emmer says her son, John, loves Barbie dolls and recently asked to have his nails painted. "My only goal is to make my kids happy," Emmer tells Yahoo Life, "no matter what toys or activities they're into." (Photo: Megan Emmer)
Blakemore also points out that what she calls "moderately masculine” toys, like building blocks or Lego sets, emphasize many positive qualities — spatial skills, science and the ability to build things, for example — that parents should encourage in all genders. The same is true for "moderately feminine" toys, such as a toy vacuum or a baby doll, which teach nurturing, infant care and the development of skills in cooking and housework.
Chef Richard Blais, winner of Top Chef: Masters, Food Network personality and restaurateur, credits his Easy Bake Oven and toy kitchen for sparking his creativity and curiosity about food.
"Did I have cooking toys? I did! I had the Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker," says Blais, who recently opened his newest restaurant, Four Flamingos, in Orlando, Fla. "I loved shaving the ice and adding all the flavored syrups. And did I make many cakes in my Easy Bake Oven? Yes I did!"
Kimberly Middleton is a mom of four from Rockledge, Fla. whose youngest son, Elijah, loves My Little Pony and asked for a "rainbow pony cake" for his fifth birthday.
When Kimberly Middleton's 5-year-old son, Elijah, requested a My Little Pony cake for his last birthday, the mom of four was happy to oblige. (Photo: Kimberly Middleton)
"I happily made it," she says. "His older siblings kind of teased him a little, so I talked to him about how sometimes people think girls and boys have to pick certain things but he doesn't have to listen to them."
Middleton says she feels lucky not to have come up against too much pressure on her sons to be "macho." When she does, she and her husband reiterate to their kids the importance of just being themselves.
"Then again, my husband loves to wear pink and enjoys doing the laundry," she says. "We talk to the kids all the time about being proud of who they are and not worrying what others think."
Mom of two BriAnne Hebert says her son Duke, 5, loves twirling in dresses and playing with My Little Pony — just like his older sister.
BriAnne Herbert says her son, Duke, loves twirling in dresses and playing My Little Pony with his sister just as much as he loves dinosaurs, monster trucks and sports. (Photo: BriAnne Herbert)
"He's started to outgrow it a little bit, but he has nail polish on right now," the Peachtree Corners, Ga. mom says. "I think the 'outgrowing' is more of a result of other kids not being accepting."
Duke also loves monster trucks, dinosaurs and sports.
"Last year, he was a unicorn for Halloween, but he made sure to tell everyone he was a 'boy unicorn,'" Hebert says, adding that while she hasn't gotten backlash from friends or family regarding her choice to let Duke select his own interests and toys, she does sometimes have to set the record straight when strangers make off-handed comments.
"When I was a teenager, I had a younger boy cousin who liked dolls," she says "My parents both made sure I knew that not only did playing with dolls not 'make him gay' as another uncle suggested, but that we as a society need to do better. How are men expected to be good fathers if they're not allowed to play with dolls?"
Megan Emmer, a mom of two in Tampa, Fla., agrees. Her son, John's, favorite Netflix show is Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures and he recently asked for a Barbie shirt.
Emmer says her son's current favorite television show is "Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures." (Photo: Megan Emmer)
"John also asked for a mermaid that could swim in the pool with him last year," she adds. "I was happy to get it for him. My little girl, Catie, asks for Hot Wheels cars and baseball gear. And a few Halloweens ago, Catie chose an 'army man' costume."
"My only goal is to make my kids happy, no matter what toys or activities they're into," says Emmer.
Emmer's daughter, Catie, asked to dress as an "army man" one Halloween and loves Hot Wheels cars and baseball gear. (Photo: Megan Emmer)
The short of it: All toys have something to teach children, regardless of gender.
Playing with a variety of toys is key to a child's growth, says Kevin Zoromski, who studies the psychology and science of play and works as part of the child and family development team at Michigan State University.
"Our job [as parents] is to give [kids] the most opportunities possible for them to use their imaginations," he says. "Allowing a child to play with any type of toy, as long as it's safe and age-appropriate, will help them grow and increase their creativity and sense of self."
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