The viral video of an adorable girl named Riley venting about how “the girls all get the pink princess stuff” has garnered a lot of attention, and inspired a thoughtful Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by writer Peggy Orenstein called “Should the World of Toys Be Gender Free?”
I’m old enough to remember when this controversy began in the late 1960s, when unisex toys and clothes were the hottest thing, and feminists were baffled by why, after reading “Stories for Free Children” from Ms. magazine to young boys and girls, they were still seeing boys gravitate toward trucks and guns and girls gravitate toward dolls. I finally got clued into what that was all about years later when I observed my own son, who was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays at age 2, playing with toys. His speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist explained to me that imagination play, and collaborative play (“You be the cop and I’ll be the robber”) requires a certain amount of language skills, which requires the neural networks in the brain to be at a particular level of development. They told me it made sense that my son, who had verbal apraxia and a significant receptive/express speech delay, was only engaging in cause-and-effect play (“I drop the marble down the chute and it makes a cool noise!”) and parallel play (“I push my Thomas the Tank Engine train and that boy across the table will push his.”) I would not see a leap forward in imaginative play until he took a leap forward in language skills. I kid you not, the week that I noticed he was now stringing sentences together in a way that made sense rather than jumping from one thought to the next was the week I saw him animate the toy cars he loved to line up. “I’m a blue car,” one told the other. “Well, that’s okay. I’m a red truck.” Wow! Never before had I seen such clear evidence that my SLP and OT had an excellent grasp of development. I also came to understand why my son, who spent a lot of time in his dad’s antique toys and collectibles store, had always preferred to push the button on the Buzz Lightyear doll rather than animate him, and loved to push the 1960s pink girls’ carpet sweeper as much as he loved to vacuum at home. Cause-and-effect play was his preference, and Thomas the Tank Engine was a major force in pushing him toward more imaginative play–which involved cooperative play with other kids who shared the public Thomas tables at FAO Schwartz and Toys R Us. I began to learn more and more about play and language, and discovered a marvelous book by a child psychologist, Lawrence Cohen, about using play to stretch developmental skills called Playful Parenting. It taught me how to get down on the floor with my son and engage in play with him, asking questions as the blue car or the red truck and suggesting activities, which expanded his language skills: “WHY do we want to drive over to the couch?” “BECAUSE we can park underneath it. It’s going to rain. We don’t want to get wet!”
So do we let our boys or girls stick with their favorite toys because those toys match with their their natural preferences, whether it’s because they are kids who think in pictures, kids with language processing difficulties, kids who are verbally gifted and highly empathetic but not skilled at visual/spatial tasks, or just kids who have typical language wiring for their gender? We know girls develop more whole brain connections, necessary for language development, earlier than boys do and continue to hold that advantage throughout life, but nature shouldn’t dictate our kids’ experiences. So how much do we push the child who wants to do puzzles alone to play with others and to try out toys that take him out of his comfort zone?
I think when we take our anxiety out of the mix, and push our kids to try something new using the just right challenge (not so much pushing that they resist aggressively, not so little that they make no progress in stretching themselves), they benefit, regardless of what the activity is. When we constantly send the message that “your type of play is inferior,” whether it’s play they do alone or pink princess/Barbie play, we make them question their worth. Being a bit lopsided in your play and your preferences isn’t such a bad thing, but we also want our kids to have the benefit of a variety of experiences and friendships. As Orenstein points out, there is some evidence that boys with sisters do better at relationships down the road than boys without sisters do, and girls with older brothers tend to be better at visual/spatial tasks than other girls are (although apparently my brother’s love for all things Tinker Toy and Lincoln Log had little effect on my brain…) Maybe girly Legos in pink and purple, with kits for building a spa or a cafe for the Lego figures to hang out in, isn’t such a terrible thing if it gets some girls out of their comfort zone a bit and learning some building and visual/spatial skills–and working with boys and girls who love the visual/spatial aspect of Legos. Maybe it’s not so bad if the girl or boy who loves to construct Star Wars vehicles out of Lego shows the kid with the pink and purple set how to modify that cafe to be more interesting. I still recall my brother’s GI Joe and my Barbie, Francie, and Skipper getting dressed to go swimming in the pool on the side of our home, which my brother figured out would be less muddy if we lined it with Saran Wrap. Yes, he had to put up with my girlfriend fussing over GI Joe’s outfit before the gang got into the Desert Jeep and got carried outside, but my Barbies’ hair was a lot less filthy thanks to my brother’s engineering skills.
Are there any toys or games that you’ve found bring different kids with different skills together? Please share!