Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Pink and Blue Toy Aisles Part 1: Are gender interests biological?

In the past week, there has been quite a bit of talk about Target and their plan to do away with the separation of toys by gender.  Critics of gender segregated toy aisles have noted that the point of disrupting the toy aisle is to give kids more play options, not more of the same.

But others say,  something like, “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.

In this series, we’ll explore the issue of whether or not girls REALLY need pink toys and boys really need blue toys, and why some people think they do.

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.

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This entry was posted on August 10, 2015 by in Recognizing, Series and tagged , , .
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