Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Nature vs Nurture in the Toy Wars: What’s sex got to do with it?


Brave Girls Want has launched a campaign for Lego to make more female mini figures. I’ve heard an interesting argument coming from those who do not believe there is anything wrong with companies promoting stereotypes. This argument goes something like this: “Girls and boys are biologically different and have different inborn preferences. There is nothing wrong with recognizing and promoting these preferences, in fact, companies should do this in order to provide access to both girls and boys.”

This argument is based on personal observation and sometimes on studies such as that done by Hassetta, Siebert and Wallena (2008) which show that children demonstrate the same sex differences in toy preference as do monkeys. So it must be biological, right? The thing is, the study referenced above simply shows that male monkeys showed a preference for wheeled toys while female monkeys showed a greater variation in preferences.

If anything, studies like this tend to demonstrate that females tend to have a wider range of interests that can be developed. As neuroscientist Lise Eliot (2010) points out, there are three small early sex differences that appear to be biological, meaning they are promoted by either prenatal hormone exposure or sex-specific gene expression. These are:

  1. The fact that baby boys are a bit more physically active than baby girls
  2. Toddler girls tend to talk a bit earlier than boys
  3. Boys appear more spatially aware.

But Eliot points out that these are tiny differences for the most part. Any large differences that emerge, as children get older seem to be driven by nurture rather than nature. In fact, neuroscience has identified very few real differences between the way that girl and boy brains function.

She says, “Our actual ability differences are quite small…there is more overlap in the academic and…social-emotional abilities of the genders than there are differences” (Eliot, 2010, pg. 33).

What Eliot is saying is that a child’s ability and interests develop in a context. We are all shaped by the world around us, not just by our parents and families, but by our communities, mass media, and our larger culture.

This context provides the child with guidance and feedback about what behaviors and interests are appropriate for them, individually and in reference to their gender. The ways and amount that parents talk to their child, the toys and activities that they are exposed to, the media messages, peer groups, and communities of which the child is a part, all of these influence the things that a child learns about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Hassetta, J.M., Siebert, E.R., & Wallena, K. (2008). Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Hormones and Behavior, 54, 359-364.

Hilliard, L.J. & Liben, L.S. (2010). Differing levels of gender salience in preschool classrooms: Effects on children’s gender attitudes and intergroup bias. Child Development, 81, 1787-1798.

Johnson, F.L. & Young, K. (2002). Gendered voices in children’s television advertising. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 461-480.

Kahlenberg, S.G. & Hein, M.M. (2010). Progression on Nickelodeon? Gender-role stereotypes in toy commercials. Sex Roles, 62, 830-847.

Miller, C.F., Lurye, L.E., Zosuls, K.M., & Ruble, D.N. (2009). Accessibility of gender stereotype domains: Developmental and gender differences in children. Sex Roles, 60, 870-881.

Pike, J.J. & Jennings, N.A. (2005). The effects of commercials on children’s perceptions of gender appropriate toy use. Sex Roles, 52, 83-91.

9 comments on “Nature vs Nurture in the Toy Wars: What’s sex got to do with it?

  1. EJay
    July 19, 2013

    This is a great article. I wish that companies would change their practices and I think that it starts with us as consumers, standing up and voicing our opinions and using our wallets to make a point. Sadly, I feel that the demand for gender neutral toys is still small compared to what the masses want. Parents who tend to be cognizant of how wrong this is tend to be progressive, college educated and well-read. That is still a minority of people in this country. Most, average, big box store- shopping American parents embrace and even encourage the whole “pink, princess, girlie culture” or they just don’t see it as a big deal. This is exactly why large companies don’t focus on this area, there is no money in it. I hope that it changes, but I think it is up to smaller entrepreneurial companies to “create” that market. In the meantime as parents, we just have to keep voicing our opinion and buying from more independent, neighborhood toy stores or online.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      July 19, 2013

      I so agree! The more we speak up, the more impact we’ll have.

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  3. Hillary Manaster
    February 20, 2012

    Great post! I often think about how these polarizing messages perpetuate gender stereotypes and impact relationships between boys and girls. It seems that the imaginative minds behind these products and advertising could use there creativity in much more creative ways!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      February 20, 2012

      Hillary, I so agree! Sexy and stereoyypes are old news. I ‘d love to see some real creativity!

  4. Marisa
    February 20, 2012

    Great post!

    I don’t think there are many companies that would change their marketing practices out of the goodness of their hearts. I wish there was a way to convince them that gender-based marketing actually doesn’t result in more sales – I would love to see some studies on this. I understand the theory that it encourages parents to buy a “blue one” and a “pink one,” but I question whether it hurts their sales overall to have such a limited supply of types of toys. How many toy makeup kits does a girl need? Anyone would probably describe my daughter as “girly,” but she’s not that excited about *another* doll – yawn.

    I wonder if companies could get excited about the profits they could make by marketing NEW kinds of things to girls, or getting twice the potential customers out of one toy/advertising campaign by marketing it to boys AND girls.

    We are doing most of our toy shopping with companies that encourage learning and creativity for both genders. In their catalogs I see new things that are different from the things my kids already have which motivates me to purchase more than I would at Walmart where I struggle to find something different from what they already have. And I still buy two toys, because I have two kids. They each deserve their own brand new present, even though I expect both of them will probably play with both toys. I don’t just get them one present that they have to share, or buy new things for the older one and let the younger child have nothing but hand-me-down toys. I set a budget and and decide how many toys I’m going to buy for Christmas, say, and then l look for things they’d like.

    Sometimes I even buy two identical things because I know they’ll want to play them at the same time. I bought two “natural wood looking” toy guitars which they played so much they wore them out, and the next year we bought two more bigger and sturdier ones. Making them pink and blue could not possibly have sold more toy guitars to my family. My kids liked them cause they looked like Daddy’s “real” guitar – I think at ages 4 and 5 they would have already thought pink and blue guitars were for babies. But I digress.

    If we can’t convince companies to stop these practices because it’s the right thing to do, as you explain so well in this post, maybe we can convince them that there is a growing number of people for whom gender-based marketing = “No Sale.”

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      February 20, 2012

      Hi Marisa, thanks for your comment. I agree, sadly, that many companies are not going to change their marketing strategy because it’s the right thing to do. But, I think it’s interesting that marketing research itself has suggested that kids will be swayed by ads that promote agency or cooperation for boys and girls, and yet we don’t see that much. Did they all miss this memo?

      I really want parents to understand that this is what’s happening. The first step in changing industry is getting more consumers to understand the pressures being put on kids and why it’s not good for them. When parents get this, they’ll start making different choices in their purchasing habits, and then just as you said, the companies will feel the financial pressure.

    • cheryl
      July 15, 2013

      Well great post and great comment! Think I’m going to visit my local toy stores and then complain about all the pink and blue! 🙂

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