Adults with little ones to shop for this holiday season may notice an absence of gender-specific labeling throughout the toy aisles of big retail chains. Pink for girls and blue for boys no longer, as more studies conclude that reiterating gender norms can lead children to overgeneralize categories about a toy's intended user.
In what is being called a positive first step in the journey towards combating gender biases, marketing tactics have begun to shift away from rigid “Pink or Blue” categories in favor of blurring the lines between traditional gender norms.
Gender-norm consistent toys
Developmental psychologist Clare Conry-Murray Ph.D discovered that kids are influenced by gender norms in potentially harmful ways – namely, they do not recognize unequal opportunities available to boys and girls.
In the study, published recently in the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (MPQ), Conry-Murray discovered that both genders thought that it was appropriate for girls to be rewarded with a set of used Old Maid playing cards, even as boys received an expensive, brand-new junior robotics kit.
“I found that almost half of the 6-to 8-year-olds tested believed that all children would agree to receive a gender-norm consistent toy, even if it was of much lower value than the toy the other sex received,” says Conry-Murray.
Doll or truck
Young children do, however, understand the importance of personal choice. For example, when faced with the question of whether a parent should give a truck or doll to their daughter when she asked for a truck, Conry-Murray said that a majority of the children in a sample group of 4 to 8-year-olds said that the parents should comply with the child's choice.
But despite having the will and ability to decide on a toy that is not consistent with gender norms, impressionable children are susceptible to subtle messages that reinforce gender-specific norms.
"Kids pick up on even subtle cues in the environment and they begin to realize that gender is an extremely important category to adults without anyone having to tell them,” says Conry-Murray. The MPQ study also revealed that 20 percent of children want gender atypical toys, but they worry about teasing and assume their peers have preferences in line with gender norms.
Challenging gender norms
So what is the best thing that a parent can do? Conry-Murray says supporting a child's choice of toy is a good first step towards allowing them to learn about gender norms.
“Parents can help by encouraging kids to go beyond traditional gender norms, and by pointing out examples of others who challenge restrictive gender norms,” Conry-Murray suggests.
As of now, Target, Amazon and the Disney Store have all removed gender filters from their websites. Toys R Us U.K. followed suit recently as well, but Toys R Us U.S.’s search sidebar still places “Boys’ Toys” and “Girls’ Toys” at the very top, implying that gender is key in selecting a toy.