Why Gender-Neutral Toys Are Important to Single Moms.

David Banda, son of pop icon Madonna, at age 1 1/2 (via Babble.com)

The holidays are upon us! Have you finished shopping for your little and not-so-little ones? If you’re like me, you may still need to get out here in these toy-store-lined streets and pick up a few more gifts. If so, this post may be just for you.

Holiday shopping always makes me hypersensitive to the gender messaging toy companies and sellers perpetuate. In stores, the aisles are often separated by gender, not just age. An aisle for girls is a sea of pink; for boys, it’s an ocean of blue. While associating colors with gender is a fairly old concept, it’s still surprising how doggedly this practice persists.

Of course it doesn’t stop there, gender-specific toys also reinforce traditional gender roles, with “girl toys” like baby dolls and toy kitchens/appliances, encouraging girls to assume nurturing, motherly, domestic roles and “boy toys” encouraging construction, engineering and sporting. (For a fuller breakdown on how pervasive this practice still is, check out this post at Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies.)

Of course there’s some overlap, but the overwhelming majority of toys still keep pretty closely to this instructional model. At the beginning of the holiday season this year, I began to notice a particular line of doll being hard-sold as a mommy-modeling toy: Nenuco brand dolls. Created in 1977, the Nenuco company has become Spain’s leading supplier of dolls; now, they’re airing English language commercials for our young daughters. The one that stood out to me showed a mother rolling a bassinet with a “newborn doll” up to the side of her young daughter’s bed. The voiceover cooed, “Teach your daughter to be a good little mother.”

Record scratch. 

Do we still want our “little daughters” learning to be “good little mothers?” Isn’t that something they could stand to be taught quite a bit later–like when they’re closer to an actual parenting age?

To the Nenuco site’s credit, it does say that it offers toys and games for girls and boys. Under the frequently asked question, “Is Nenuco a game for girls?,” the company responds:

Although it can still be perceived as a “girls'” toy, in practice boys and girls share playing with dolls…while playing house and overcoming old sexist roles. The educational values of this type of games are recommendable in early infancy for girls as well as for boys.

But no boys are featured holding, feeding, diapering or burping any of these baby dolls.

And shouldn’t they be? If girls need to learn to be “good little mommies,” it follows that boys also need to learn how to father–and father includes all the things baby dolls are designed to teach girls: diapering, burping, feeding, potty-training.

Much has been written about this subject and the staunch gender-segregation of toys has even become a point of contention with the very children toward whom the products are marketed. Consider this viral rant by Riley, a girl who was reported to be five years old last year:

Now consider 13-year-old McKenna Pope, who started a Change.org petition to get Hasbro to reconsider its gender-coded Easy Bake Oven colors. The petition, started after McKenna’s four-year-old brother asked for the oven and their mom couldn’t find it in any colors other than pink or purple, garnered 30,000 signatures in just over a week. (To date, the signature count is close to 45,000.)

Yesterday, Hasbro announced its plan to unveil a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven, in response to McKenna’s initiative. Here’s hoping other toy companies quickly follow suit.

Amid all this discussion of who should be performing which roles, I can’t help think about what these strides mean for single parents. As single mothers, our children might often see us performing tasks that defy our culture’s ideas about traditional gender roles, like lawn-mowing, trash hauling, tire and oil changing, or plumbing. Conversely, when our children visit their fathers, they may see them performing tasks that they’re being taught are “women’s roles”: diapering, cooking, feeding, and house-cleaning. Whether a home has two parents or one, it’s imperative that our children understand that labor is shared and not necessarily gender-specific. But in no home is that clearer than in one with a single parent.

If toy companies really want to teach kids how to be like their mothers or fathers, they should account for the large contingent of children whose parents manage households alone. In so doing, they’d finally see the ridiculousness of splitting instructive toys along gender lines.

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