The Columns

Toy Story: Psychology Professor Lends Her Voice to No-Gender December

— by on December 15th, 2015

‘Tis the season for giving gifts, and Megan Fulcher, associate professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University, appears on an Australian website promoting a no-gender December.

As the website notes: “Many toy retailers use gendered marketing which influences children and consumers alike, by sending strong messages about the appropriateness of their choices. Colour codes, labels and imagery all have a narrowing effect on our children’s perspectives.”

Fulcher, who teaches a class on gender role development, agreed to lend her voice in support for the public service announcement. In the video, alongside her students, she said, “Knowing a child’s gender tells you very little about their interests, abilities, wishes or aspirations.” She noted her favorite toy was a bike, and her students each reveal their favorite childhood toy.

The website, says Fulcher, is a clever idea because people are trying to figure out what to buy at this time of year. “This reminds people to not make a choice just based on gender. Historically, we’ve always seen toys just for boys or just for girls, but surprisingly, there’s been a real push to have more pink toys and more blue toys. Even though we’re encouraging girls to do more masculine activities, we are still color coding those toys pink.”

One example she points to: LEGO®. “People are interested in building girls’ skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). So LEGO® came out with pink sets. One of the things we’re finding is that the pink LEGO® sets are less complicated than the regular ones. They are not as hard to put together and don’t have as many pieces. You build it and then play with it, and the second part leads to very feminine play. Essentially the message is, you can do this as long as you do this in a particularly feminine way. It also gets parents to buy two of everything if they have also have a boy, so it is sort of a clever marketing ploy, too.”

Boys don’t often play with non-traditional male toys. “Parents are much less likely to give boys non-traditional toys than they are to give girls non-traditional toys,” Fulcher said. “What we do know is that when children play with kitchen sets and dolls, they build relationship skills. They also build language skills because they end up talking a lot while they are playing with someone else. If you’re playing cars or kicking a ball around outside, children aren’t interacting as much.”

Confused? Don’t be. While the phrase “gender-neutral toy” is a useful one, Fulcher said, “it doesn’t mean children should have only unpainted wooden blocks to play with. I think dolls are great toys. I think LEGOs® are great toys. I think cars are great toys. The point is that children learn different skills from all of those toys, and boys and girls should have access to all of them. When you’re deciding what toy to buy, don’t let gender be a deciding factor. Think about the children and what kind of skills they have and what kind of skills you want to help them build.”

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