Can I confront children if they ask for stereotyped toys for boys and girls?

In this helpdesk, we tackle a question every day during our year-end parties. Today: “Please, can I give my daughter a doll and my son a firefighter suit?”

Handy, that annual letter to Sinterklaas. With a bit of luck, as a parent, you should think of nothing more than a princess dress/ironing board/hairdresser doll for your daughter and a gun/space station/punching bag for your son for the entire month of gifts in December. Stereotype? Perhaps, but they chose it themselves, and St. Nicholas is a child-friendly, not a carrier of the political and cultural elite, right? Should we also be fighting the wars of the sexes on the playing rug?

“What starts with play comes back at every stage of life,” says Christine Ho of Rosa, the Knowledge Center for Gender and Feminism, which launched the Play Free, Kids Choose campaign in 2013 with like-minded organizations. Stereotypes about boys and girls are still very much alive and being developed by the big toy manufacturers. This pays off, as they have two markets to play. The campaign has notched up a few victories in recent years. For example, Game of the Year no longer has separate categories for boys and girls.

People now know that the strict division of the world into pink and blue has been exaggerated in recent years. I doubt whether people are aware enough that we may lose out on opportunities and talents as a result, for example because of the impact on study and career choice, says Werl Draulans, professor of gender studies at KU Leuven. Awareness is growing, but the desire to change our behavior follows reluctantly. There is nothing wrong with giving your daughter a doll if she asks for it, but you also need to realize that the child is not completely free to make this choice.

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Women’s soccer

The Saint’s doll was chosen from a booklet with separate pages for girls, on top of the aunt’s doll, Grandpa’s note that women’s soccer isn’t a real sport after all, and make-up advice on sites like “For Girls Only”. “The whole environment helps determine appropriate behavior for girls and boys, and from about five years old, the average child is very aware of their gender and acts according to those expectations,” says Draulans. This unconscious stereotype begins already during pregnancy. Many fathers-to-be dream of their sons in line with stereotypical gender expectations: sons like strong men and daughters are beautiful and sweet.

So how is he? Offer as many options as possible, including hobbies, for example, and don’t make gender stereotypical statements about what is or isn’t appropriate. If a girl is always getting “games for girls”, you might not realize that she is also good at building complex structures. The Draulans say that a young boy who is being encouraged to be Superman may not know that he can also take care of others.

“Do you think empathy has sex?” asks sexologist Wim Slapink. “The fact that girls are better at emotional skills is because they train them from an early age, while we get away with teaching boys to take their emotions seriously and express them.” Games play a role in this. If you only get your hands on action figures, planes, and shooting games, how is a boy supposed to figure out he might want to be a teacher or a sexologist?

In recent years, boys may have suffered more than girls. Their field of play is much smaller than that of girls, who are seen much less often than before when they display so-called masculine qualities such as ambition. It’s also about more than just career choices. Slabbinck also connects raising boys to become strong champions of depression and suicide, to the extent men link their identity to their jobs, the risk of addiction and male dominance in prisons.

Circus stuff

And so, according to some, there is a line from the blue and pink aisles of the toy store to the Weinstein case and the entire #metoo campaign. In the darkest scenarios, those sweet, gentle princesses with a doll in their arms and those powerful boys who conquer the world by force turn into still-natured girls when they are forced to sleep by the victor who fights the opposition as part of the game. I learned to see.

Are we exaggerating? No, of course not because Saint Nicholas brings a doll that puts your daughter at greater risk of sexual harassment. And this group of puppet soldiers will not lead your son straight to jail. But why not stretch the imagination a little? Circus or magic equipment, for example, don’t recognize gender, nor do simple, old-fashioned Lego blocks in all the colors of the rainbow. Many boys like to play the role of a cook, baker, gardener or shopkeeper. More and more toy stores are creating a separate corner with science toys. Nature, the universe, global warming, alternative energy sources: Why do you assume your daughter isn’t interested?

conclusion: Santa can still bring a doll or truck if your daughter or son asks. But ideally, a good guy would also look beyond the pink and blue boxes that big toy manufacturers bet on, so that he would not only let girls be pretty and boys not only be tough.

Do you also have a question yourself? Mail it to, and we’ll find the answer. Also, if you have a golden tip you’d like to share with other readers, we can pass it along in this column.

*The above article is an excerpt from our archives, which originally appeared on Saturday, December 2, 2017. Christine Ho is no longer Rosa’s communications director, and she has been succeeded by Jeantien Debesser.

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