Raising Trouble: It's Natural

Liza Featherstone
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When it comes to gender, members of the media just LOVE reporting with breathless astonishment on research that appears to reinforce conventional wisdom. Sometimes it takes a certain amount of squishing to make it fit said conventional wisdom; cf. coverage of just about every study on daycare's impact on the wellbeing of children. An interesting study presented at yesterday's British Psychological Association (BPA) meeting provides a case in point.

Dr. Brenda Todd, and undergraduate Sara Amalie O'Toole Thommessen, both of London's City University, offered 90 small children, ages nine months to three years, seven different toys. Some were stereotypically girls' toys (dolls, cookware), some boys' toys (car, digger). The researchers found that even the nine-month old babies showed significantly more interest in toys made for their own gender -- that is, the girls headed straight for the pink stuff, boys for the trucks. The BPA press release noted that the study's findings, "raise the possibility that there is a biological basis in children to play with gender-typed toys." That possibility alone attracted global media attention, as it always does, but we have to give the London Daily Mail credit for most doucheworthy headline: "Why Girls Are Naturally Drawn to Dolls as Soon as They Can Crawl."

To Dr. Todd's credit, she -- and other researchers interviewed in some of the news frenzy -- pointed out that nine-month old babies are hardly immune to socialization. That point always gets lost in the din, but it's the most important part of the story. When my son Ivan was less than a year old, he often wanted to bring a toy when we went out to run errands in the neighborhood. If he had a helicopter or truck with him, everyone wanted to ask him about it. In fact, generally, people did want to chat with him, as he was a friendly and charismatic toddler. But I noticed that when he brought his baby doll, instead of a vehicle, strangers rarely tried to engage him. And anyone who thinks babies don't pick up on such social subtleties has not spent much time around babies.

Because I can't resist having fun at the expense of others, let's take a gander at the concluding line of the Daily Mail report:

There could be a biological basis for their choices...girls prefer warmer colours such as pink, the colour of a newborn baby.

Where to even begin? It would be impossible to enumerate all the problems with this explanation of the pink phenomenon (for starters, Korean, Japanese and African-American babies are not pink, yet little girls of all races, at least in the U.S., love pink crap).

There's nothing wrong with the idea that biological instincts could inform play -- how could they not? But it's ludicrous how badly people want to believe that it's all about Mother Nature.

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Anecdotally That Did Not Work For Me

Despite all the typical "boy's toys" growing up and being biologically male, my favorite sleepwear is a cap sleeve pink nylon babydoll, and my favorite underwear is a pair of deep rose pink full brief nylon panties. i love ultra-feminine lace, tiered ruffles, bows, and frills, and especially in vibrant pink. i'm not kidding. You can check for yourself. i'm on YouTube in my panties. i know it's only anecdotal, but the early childhood toy thing sure didn't work for me.

On my fourth birthday, I

On my fourth birthday, I asked my aunt to buy me a "My First Barbie" doll. She complied, and I played with the doll along with my other regular assortment of action figures. Looking back now, it's ridiculous to see how these toys are categorized to keep children separated by gender. Well, what about transgender children? Are they just left by the wayside? They are completely left out of the picture because we live in a heterosexual society.

Another thing that strikes me is the last line from the study: "girls prefer warmer colours such as pink, the colour of a newborn baby." Is this not an ad for traditional gender roles? Who says girls even like babies? This suggests that all women are supposed to do is grow up and have babies, only to stay at home to take care of them.

Connecting dots

The idea that girls are "naturally" attracted to pink and boys to blue is extremely interesting in light of the factoid Bitch shared not too long ago that the gendered role of these colors were switched prior to WWII. I wonder what people ascribing to purely essentialist assertions would say about that? It's a shame we can't seem to find some compromising balance between nature/nurture, yes?

Preschool Teacher's Perspective

Sigh...it's so sad to see these sorts of stereotypes still being so vehemently defended. What are people so afraid of?

I worked as a preschool teacher in the past, and I observed that in every school I worked in, there were boys who consistently chose the pink tutus from the dress-up bin, boys who preferred to play hairdresser and fix their classmates' hair, girls who were glued to the blocks and other manipulatives, and girls who fought for the best trucks. However, the reactions of the other teachers and parents to these choices often made the children change their minds about which toys to play with. Boys wearing tutus often found themselves being laughed at, not by the other children, but by teachers. Girls playing with trucks were asked, "Why don't you play with dolls with the other girls?" I saw children constantly bombarded with these kinds of messages, and then changing their behavior in order to please the more aggressive adults around them.

I've also observed that people will twist observations in order to fit the conservative point of view. My nephew has always been fascinated by brooms, vacuums, and any kind of cleaning instrument. Were he a girl, I'm sure this would be met with knowing smiles and comments about future housekeeping abilities. However, because he's a boy, I've heard conservative family members and family friends reaching for a more appropriate "boyish" reason for his choices; for example, "He thinks the broom is a hockey stick," or encouraging him to redirect his interests by buying him tool sets and then enthusiastically praising him each time he uses one of the tools. No doubt in a few years he'll be playing hockey and/or fixing things around the house, and everyone will be holding him up as proof that boys naturally love sports and using tools.

Thank you for sharing your

Thank you for sharing your observtions as a preschool teacher! This is all the evidence I need that people socialize and perpetuate stereotypes on children from birth. So sad. Imagine what potential we would realize as a society if we explored all our life options without being pressured or mocked into prearranged gender boxes.
Never have I been so aware of genderized toys and societal constructs through media, etc, as when I became the parent of two girls.
Thank you for these informative posts--I always get excited to read about better ways to parent through more feminist and tolerant methods.

If they even believe in

If they even believe in science, this would be great fodder for entities such as Vision Forum Industries and Ladies Against Feminism. They and others like them fascinate me so much because of their obsessively rigid enforcement of outdated and narrow gender roles in the name of Christianity. I wonder how long it will be before this triumphantly shows up on their website? As for me, despite my ongoing disagreement with my parents about who "should" be the breadwinner and the homemaker in my household (I'm apparently a poorer person for pursuing a career while my boyfriend contentedly takes care of all domestic tasks), I must give them much credit for filling my childhood toy bin with Tonka trucks, Legos, Hot Wheels cars, Thundercats toys, AND plenty of dolls and stuffed animals. I don't think I even started wearing anything pink until I had my school pictures taken in kindergarten.

I hate these studies. There

I hate these studies. There is a total lack of effort put into controlling for socialization.

What makes me feel better is doing childcare at my church. In our childcare center we have cars and trucks, blocks, puppets, a little mock kitchen, baby dolls, a dollhouse, and a knight and castle playset, and boys and girls spend time on these things equally. One little boy loves filling up the toy shopping cart with food, putting a baby in the little seat, and racing it around the room. There also a picture of a little girl on the side of the cart (which is a little frustrating), and he happily proclaims "That's me!". And most of the girls in the group wind up playing catch or racing the cars. The parents in my church are far more concerned that their children are being active, and having fun playing with everyone, than with what toys they are specifically playing with.

Child Care

I work in child care for ages 4 and under and one of the rules immediately enforced upon hiring was to refrain from encouraging stereotypes. When we follow this rule we see little boys who looooove playing with the baby dolls. They absolutely love it; the baby dolls are their favorite toy. But they also love playing with the trucks. We also see little girls who always involve themselves in the more "sporty" games such as basketball or scooter racing. But they still love coloring. Basically, we encourage a well-rounded developement. What's even more delightful to see is that the parents are all for it. One couple brought in their newborn son with a bright pink bib blaring "I am NOT a girl!" When I asked them why they simply stated that "A bib is a bib; we treat our kids the same". I love it :) I love this blog also. My kids are getting green and yellow rooms and are going to be dressed in whatever color suits my mood that day.

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