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Sexist kids' toys

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Get beyond pink and blue

When you talk to your child about the future, you hold out the world. “You can be anything you want to be,” you say.

But are your child’s toys sending a different message? Are toys telling your kids that girls have only one kind of role and boys have another? Are the toys for your kids sexist?

With the recent introduction of the "Friends" line by Lego came some debate. The line is clearly marketed to girls, with pink and purple sets that include a cafe, a beauty salon and a splash pool in which the larger than usual mini-figure -- with breasts -- appears to be sipping a cocktail. Why? Why do toys -- and now classic Lego! -- have to be so genderized?

Stereotypes and gender roles

Looking through the aisles of any large toy store, you get a clear idea of "girl" toys and "boy" toys. Your first signal is color. Girls? Pink, purple, pastels, white. Boys? Blue, black, gray and dark colors. Then there's content. Toys marketed to boys tend to be active, even violent and noisy. There are trucks with sirens, action figures with weapons, construction toys. Toys marketed to girls tend to be less active, focus on "self-improvement" (hair and makeup) or with specific societal roles such as home care and child care. Pink toy vaccum cleaner for a girl? Where's the matching blue toy garbage can for the boy? (Hint: It doesn't exist!)

Was it always this way?

Yes -- and no. Gender stereotypes have long existed in our society as have toys to fit them -- dolls for girls and trucks for boys are nothing new. What was different then was that the toys themselves were less genderized. Those classic toys had less pink and blue -- less everything, really -- and left more up to the child's imagination. The doll didn't arrive in a pinked-up package with photos of how the doll should be used (in a tea party, for example). There was no signal to the child that the doll couldn't go climb a tree or drive a tractor.

Does it really matter?

Being a kid is intense enough without piling on societal expectations. If you mean it when you say, "You can do or be anything," then sexist toys for kids do matter. They undermine your message. Your son likes to cook? Hooray! But good luck finding any play cooking tools for him in anything other than "girl" colors and aren't packaged in a way that excludes his entire gender. Within your family, you can -- and likely do -- work around this issue to a certain extent. You buy real (inexpensive) cooking tools for your son or the noisy trucks for your daughter. And what about science or technology toys? Or toys that try to be gender neutral? You have to seek out an independent toy store that specializes in learning toys.

Making a conscious effort to (literally) not buy into sexist messages from toy companies takes a bit of effort. Those classic, not themed Legos are out there -- just harder to find.

More on toys for kids

10 Quick tips for organizing the playroom
Lessons to teach while playing with blocks
Choosing baby toys

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