Note: This post is about my frustrations with the toy industry and the merchandising (pink and blue aisles) in stores, their obsession with boy and girl toys, and the lack of options outside of the split-gender toy culture, and is not solely in response to the Facebook thread that I refer to. This piece reflects thoughts that have been going around in my head for the past several years and it was coming regardless of the virtual conversation that took place. I have concerns about placing strong gender expectations on our children and can’t wrap my head around what has happened to toys just being toys as when past generations were growing up. There have always been Barbies and dolls, but things have gotten carried away.
“that’s it. i’m opening a store for kids that sells things that have nothing to do with gender, being separated by gender, or “tells” them (and their parents) what toys and clothes they should be wanting/getting based on their gender.” ~ December 1, 2014
It’s been a week since I updated my Facebook status expressing my frustration over trying to find a bicycle with training wheels for Sugar Bee that wasn’t pink and glittery or covered in Spider-Man decals. I’m still bothered by the discussion that followed, so I am letting my thoughts have an outlet here and now. Of course it got a few likes, a few comments from friends implying that they would like to see the same thing and would shop there, some other supportive comments, but not all of them were free from judgement. I’m quite certain that I probably inadvertently offended some of my more sensitive Facebook friends by using the phrase, “pukey pinky with tassels and crap,” as I bet they felt that this was a personal attack on them or their daughters. I would never, ever mean it that way and I love that most of the daughters of my friends are into all the usual girl things. I know my daughter will love her time with them no matter what they play with. I was just really frustrated and getting anxious about what kind of bicycle Santa was going to be able to bring on Christmas morning.
What was most ridiculous to me was that I felt like I had to defend why I didn’t want to get my kid a “girly” bike. Do I care what anyone else buys their kid? Do I judge if there is all sorts of girl stuff in someone’s house? No, I just assume that their house is aligned with the interests that their child has. Your particular home with a little girl in it might be all full of pink, princesses, play kitchens, and dolls, while mine is full of construction machines, trains and tracks, and matchbox cars. What I don’t think people ponder very often is what it might be like to have a daughter that is not princess-obsessed, one that everyone sees as less “normal” than others. People talk to me in public and assume that my kid knows the entire score to Frozen. I sometimes comment that she’s more of a Cars kid, other times I just smile. When your child’s birthday came around and you asked them what kind of birthday party they wanted, perhaps they picked a gender-appropriate (whatever the hell that means) theme. My daughter enthusiastically declared that she wanted a Dusty party. It just so happened that the second Planes movie was coming out two weeks before her birthday weekend. Good timing for her and a great time was had by all.
My point is, everyone likes and dislikes different things, even all of us as adults, so I am still having a hard time wrapping my head around some of the 44 comments on my status update. I was struggling with my online shopping to find something that wasn’t clearly labeled “boy” or “girl,” one that wasn’t over-the-top with pink craziness or over-the-top about a character. As I shopped, I knew she would be totally fine with something that was clearly for a boy, but why should it have to be this way? Why are there no other options? That was the entire point of my post which has now led to this lengthy piece.
An argument that girls are by nature more nurturing is as absurd as expecting everyone to want kids of their own. Not all girls need or want dolls and have to participate in or initiate creative play of a domestic nature, for lack of a better term. She is genuinely loving and caring for others, she welcomes people into our home, greets people everywhere she goes whether they are strangers or not, and has always been like this. She loves on any animal she comes in contact with (once causing her to get stepped on by a pony) and has one of the sweetest souls ever. I trust her instincts about people more than my own. But nurturing is not a word that I would choose to describe her. I don’t want my child to feel that there’s something wrong with her because she has no interest in dolls or pink or princesses or whatever way other people think she should be. She might totally change someday and do a 180. That will be just as fine.
In the past, I have felt pressure to clarify that we DO expose her to girl stuff, so here it is. (For the record, it’s making me cringe every time I’m referring to something as a boy or girl thing.) She has a Disney Princess Tea Set that she does play with on occasion. So what if it’s probably only because she likes to sort and organize things. I’ve shown her how to have a tea party and she will sometimes (now) pretend with me, but she mostly uses the tea cups to hold some of her cars. She has a doll, a stroller, and even a few outfits for it, but would you like to know how she plays with her doll? On the half a dozen times that she has voluntarily touched the doll, she puts her in the stroller and races around the house, chasing/torturing the dog, letting the doll hang half out of the stroller, sometimes falling out completely. Then she runs away, leaving the doll on the floor. Nurturing? Not so much. I know she has played with the kitchens and stuff at other homes and at school sometimes, but these are just not the things that she gravitates to. She plays with the cars and the trains most of the time, and is obsessed with puzzles. And I’m perfectly fine with that. I sneak peeks at her creatively playing with her cars and trains, making up scenarios and conversations. It’s the same thing girls do with their dolls or stuffed animals, just with a different medium. And that’s perfectly fine. She helps me in the kitchen (she calls it “bakering”), and although it’s usually a brief encounter, at least she shows an interest. She helps me move laundry into the dryer or laundry basket and wants to help Swiffer the floor. But one of the most exciting times for her this past week was when I let her help me change the batteries out of two toys, showing her how to use the screwdriver and teaching her what to do by herself. Her face beamed, her concentration was so focused, and she was over the moon with pride when they toys worked again. I have little doubt that she will be taking things apart in my house before she enters intermediate school. That is my child.
My problem isn’t what anyone else does as far as buying toys for their kids. Frankly, it’s none of my damn business. To think that I would want to do away with princess things or pink things is absurd. My oldest niece was princess obsessed and I loved it! I would buy all sorts of cool Disney things for her and had a great time playing with her and all her things. My question is, what has happened to toys? How have we let toy manufacturers and marketers create such a huge divide in what toys children feel they “should” play with? Why do we have this obsessive need to make things for boys and things for girls, things that are essentially identical aside from color? My child gravitates toward blue, orange and red. Those are just the colors that she likes. So why can’t we just have TOYS like we did when my generation was growing up? This was the entire point of my post (rant) on the good ol’ Facebook. How fun for you (or maybe not from what some friends say) that your little girl is obsessed with Frozen. It took me THREE tries to get through that movie with her and I really wanted to watch it, so I basically forced/bribed her into finishing it with me. She’s not much of a fan of movies with people characters…Cars, Planes, Toy Story…those are her jams. And I have so many movies that I hope I will watch with her. Someday. But that day is not today. It’s not where she is, and maybe she never will be. And that’s just fine, too. I will sit and watch The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast for the trillionth times, reciting the words and singing every score by myself. Maybe that will make it more interesting to her. Someday.
After the whole bike discussion on Facebook, I took her to look at bikes at REI and a few other places the next evening to see what she gravitated to when selecting her own bike. It went just as I expected it would. After all, I do know my own kid. (Santa will probably be bringing a nice blue BMX bike with training wheels this Christmas.) After we found “the one,” we went off to Target to check and see if there was something less expensive that she liked, but everything in her size range was character dependent. It’s fine if your child is completely obsessed with something and you as parents choose to get a Hello Kitty bike for your daughter, Lord knows that Sugar Bee’s head nearly exploded when she saw the box that held the Planes: Fire and Rescue bike in it and she told me she “needed” that one, but my husband and I decided before this FB discussion even took place that we did not want something so thematic for her. We want a quality bicycle that will last for more than one year and hold her interest longer than her newest movie or toy obsession.
While in Target, I was wandering the toys getting ideas for other kids’ birthday and Christmas presents. I saw girl nerf guns and girl lego sets (those were mostly lame, in my opinion). I understand the point behind making things available in pink. We want to be able to offer the pink things to the girls that love pink in the hopes that they might discover something new that they may not have tried otherwise. I think it’s a great idea, but I feel that it’s gone completely overboard. Gender-neutral toys, or toys as they were called when we were growing up, are disappearing. I saw this pink tool set two years ago and had my mom get it for her. She absolutely loves it and plays with it constantly. Yes, I bought it because it was pink. But I would have bought her a tool set at some point, pink or not. Do we need pink tool sets? Pink Nerf guns? Pink Lego sets? What if a little boy sees the stable Lego Friends set and wants it because he loves horses? He has to cross to the pink aisle to the girl Legos, opening him up for possible future ridicule from friends for playing with girl toys. I was perfectly happy with my normal old legos growing up. We are perpetuating and encouraging this cycle of pink = girl and blue/orange/red/whatever = boy, and making a greater toy divide. I bet the toy companies are making a killing by offering the same thing in different colors to each gender. Why are we letting them make the rules?
Now back to my anxiety over the bicycle situation. Last Christmas, my nieces gave her two gifts. One was a travel Thomas train and tracks (obvious hit with her). The other was a pink stroller. Upon opening that one, she stared blankly at me and pushed it aside. I felt sad. For all of us. At her birthday this year, some friends from our neighborhood that we really only know from the pool gave her a set of something like My Little Pony, all different sizes, with a hair dryer, fake braids to attach, and all sorts of accessories. As if the face she made wasn’t reason enough for me to want to move on to the next gift quickly, she actually said, “I don’t like that” as she handed me the gift. I still hope that she said it quietly enough that the family didn’t hear. (There’s a reason why Russians never open gifts in front of people.) I was anxious about being able to prevent a wave of disappointment from coming over my child’s face on Christmas morning. I just want more options and less boy versus girl.
Since she could move, Sugar Bee has been fascinated with things that move. She is constantly shocking me with the capabilities of her mind. She is crazy amazing with puzzle skills. She loves learning about outer space. She wants to know everything. I know kids are curious, I taught kids her age for years, but she needs to know EVERYTHING. “What kind of car is that? What is that machine doing? What kind of stuff is that truck carrying? Are we going to the highway? What road are we on?” She misses nothing. In a frightening sort of way. She looks at and observes every detail when we are outside, always asking questions. I never want her curiosity and love for the world around her to dwindle. I want her to always be free to express herself and her interests without being told that something is for boys. It’s inevitable, I know. Kids are mean and can be downright ruthless, and adults (myself included) sometimes make comments without thinking about their potential impact. I only hope that I can arm her with enough self-confidence in who she is and what she can accomplish to defend her spirit from the judgments. Until then, we will continue to put Top Gear on the DVR when she asks for it.
One of my minors was sociology. This is something that really hits home to me, but not only because of that. I was a building kid and I loved to be outside. I had an incredible sandbox that I remember playing with huge, metal Tonka construction vehicles in. I had Barbies. And they had a Tonka truck to ride in. I love sports and watching them, talking about them, playing in fantasy leagues. I played soccer, softball, and basketball from elementary school until I graduated high school. I have incredible spatial skills and a ridiculous sense of direction, if I do say so myself. I love cars. I have my motorcycle license. I know how to shoot guns. I’m a math and science nerd whose favorite subject (and original major) was physics. I have been lucky enough to always have had teachers that recognized and encouraged my math and science skills, instead of telling me they were not things that girls are good at. I’m not your average girl, so why would anyone surprised that my kid is who she is? I don’t care if she’s doing boy things or girl things. I want her to be caring, loving, and generous, to love who she is, both inside and out, and not judge others based on their interests. So, toy industry, stop expecting my sweet girl to only want to shop on the pink side of a toy store. And know that I will never feel like my kid should be all about the pink.