Saturday, December 01, 2007

But that's a girl phone....

I took my four-year-old son Leo grocery shopping the other day, and once I'd finished selecting all the food items on my list, I let him lead me to the toy aisle to pick out a treat. (I know, buying the kid a treat every time is a very bad habit, but that's a post for another day...)

Anyway, after examining all of the possible choices, one toy caught his eye: a toy cell phone colored bright pink with a shimmering pink carrying case that had a pearly-pink beaded handle. And as soon has he grabbed it, can you guess the first thing that came out of my mouth?

"But, that's for girls."

And as soon as I'd said it, I was biting my tongue and thinking I'm a bad parent, I'm a bad parent, I'm a bad parent...

I've bought my kids toys before that are probably more marketed to girls (a few dolls and toy dishes), but the thing is that they'd never asked for anything quite so, well, pink before. They're just barely getting to the age where the toys for their age group are strongly gender-segregated. My involuntary reaction shows I hadn't thought much about this yet for my own kids, mostly because they're boys and the "boy version" of each toy tends to be inoffensively neutral (so I have no problem buying it), whereas the "girl version" ends up gendered. Take a toy cell phone, for example: it's obviously a gender-neutral toy. Why would a girl need a feminine version?

Back to my story, I gathered up the three possible choices of toy cell phones to let Leo select the one he wanted. The choices were (1) the pink one, (2) a kind-of-feminine lavender one that wasn't quite so over-the-top as the pink one, and (3) a red one with a picture on its fake screen of someone parachuting. I can only assume that cell phone #3 is the one boys are supposed to pick, although I wouldn't object to giving that one to a girl. Leo was sure he wanted the pink one (a reasonable choice since it was the sparkliest and most fabulous of the three), so I figured "Why not?" and bought it for him. We brought it home and Leo had lots of fun making fake phone calls and rough-housed with it until he'd broken the beaded handle off the case. (Then he got the beaded handle stuck in one of the keyholes of our old house, and I had the fun of figuring out how get it back out...)

The next day, Leo brought his fabulous phone to school, and when he came home, he didn't have it anymore. I didn't notice at first (and neither did he), but a few hours later he remembered and started crying about it. Apparently some other boy at school had taken the phone away from him. Leo said the boy took it because it's a girl phone (so he presumably then gave it to a girl...? Not sure...). So I hugged Leo and told him not to worry, and that I'd buy him a new phone.

Then the next time I took Leo grocery shopping, we went to the toy aisle to pick out his replacement phone. Can you guess which one he picked this time? It was #3, the red one for boys.

So the problem was solved in a sense, but it has a bit of an unsatisfying conclusion. What do you think? Parents out there -- what do you do about the whole pink-gendered-toy question?


B.G. Christensen said...

I've tried really hard to teach my four-year-old daughter and now my eighteen-month-old son that there's no such thing as "girl toys" and "boy toys" or "girl shows" and "boy shows" or "girl things to do" and "boy things to do," but it's an uphill battle. It comes down to the two things you've pointed to here--the intense gendering that goes into manufacturing and marketing kids' products, and peer pressure. Now that my daughter is in preschool she comes home with all sorts of ideas we would never teach her, which she's picked up from her friends. Several months ago she declared that "girls don't go to work." Thankfully now that my wife has finished her master's and is teaching, our daughter is seeing that yes, women do work. Our son has no concept of gender yet so he's just as happy to wear his sister's princess tiara as her superhero costumes, and I'd like for him to keep that neutral position but I know full well that once he's in school he'll either pick up more conventional ideas of gender or be made fun of for playing with "girl toys."

A big problem your post points to is the fact that teaching a more balanced idea of gender is much more difficult (in some senses) with boys than with girls, precisely because toys and clothes marketed to boys are generally gender neutral (which probably has more to do with our society's conception of man as the norm and woman as the aberration than intentional marketing decisions). My daughter, for example, can get away with having a red fire engine bed and declaring that she wants to be a firefighter when she grows up. Could a four-year-old boy sleep in a pink Barbie bed and talk about being a fashion designer when he grows up without other kids and even adults looking at him funny? Probably not.

So anyway, I don't know what the solution is. I don't like that just about every toy marketed to girls tells them that they should aspire to be princesses when they grow up and hope to marry their handsome prince. I don't like that boys are taught that certain things are girly and should be avoided, but I don't know what to do about it. Let me know if you figure something out.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mr. Fob!!!

It's true, one advantage for girls is that it's more-or-less okay to avoid the pink toys. I think they existed when I was a kid, but I don't recall having many except Barbies. Being a "tomboy" is somehow less of a stigma than being a "sissy."

That's not to say that girls have it easier in general -- it would be nice to be the norm rather than the aberration...;^)

B.G. Christensen said...

Absolutely. That's why I added the caveat "in some senses."

Though I often wish I weren't the norm, not because I'm under the illusion that it's easier to be a woman in our society and culture, but because I don't like feeling responsible (and no doubt being responsible, to some extent) for the fact that thousands of years of inequality favors me.

jana said...

My son's favorite color when he was little was pink. His 4th birthday was pink everything--from the frosting on the cake to the the balloons, streamers, hats, etc.

I indulged him and a few people around us snickered. He's grown out of the pink phase now (he's in jr hi) but he still seems okay with girly things sometimes. He doesn't seem like the kind of kid that needs to prove his manliness--such things don't even seem to be on his radar. He loves snuggling with the cats, is helpful around the house, is gentle with babies, etc. I'd like to think that we've raised him in a way that hasn't made him feel that his softer side or his natural inclinations (like liking pink) are wrong.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jana!!!

That's cool -- it's encouraging to hear a positive story of navigating these tricky waters. :D

Unknown said...

I think that this is one of the things that I pay attention to most in other people's children. I don't have any of my own, but I'm keeping a list of the things that I want to encourage and avoid when my wife and I do decide to have them.

One thing that bugs me is when people get snippy about the gender of their baby. Why? Why should it matter at that age? They're about the least-gendered human beings on the planet.

The main thing that I want to avoid is that if I have a daughter someday, I don't want her ever to feel that she has to give in to the gender role pressure. If she wants a toy that comes in a primary color, she's welcome to have one.

I think you're right; when I've shopped for toys, they come in two varieties; one that's gender-neutral and one that's "girl-oriented." The type of toy that makes me most queasy is the stimulus-response baby toys that they market for girls. Talk about reinforcing a gender role. And they're like pod-people. <shudder/>

littlemissattitude said...

Fair disclosure: I'm not a parent.

But, I remember being a kid, and I still browse the toy aisles because, well, I love toys.

I always hated that there were some toys that I wasn't supposed to like because I'm a girl and that there were other toys that I was supposed to love and covet because I'm a girl.

You see, my favorite toy when I was about four or five years old was a plastic demolition-derby car that you could wind up and aim at a wall and it would come apart into several parts that could be put back together and demolished again. Clearly not a stereotypically "girl" toy. And then there were dolls. Always hated dolls...well, except for Barbie, but she was useful for putting on dramas so she was valuable for that and not necessarily for her dollness.

My usual lament when I tour the toy aisles is that the toys are used to reinforce "boy" roles and "girl" roles so early on. I mean, do we really need to be introducing pre-school girls to the concept that boys will like them better if they paint their faces? Or telling boys, through the toys they are offered on the shelves, that they should like handling guns and knives and similar implements of destruction?

It will be bad enough when they get older and people keep reinforcing that boys shouldn't cry (or show much of any other emotion aside from hate and anger) and that there are certain subjects that girls shouldn't be interested in because they aren't "ladylike". Because I had that one laid on me, after I reached adulthood and someone from the Mormon church told me that my interest in science in general and in geology in particular was "inappropriate" because it wasn't ladylike, using exactly that word.

Sorry if that doesn't really answer your the way, I don't see anything wrong with a boy playing with a pink toy...but your post just set off this set of reactions.

Anonymous said...

My sons are 23 and 17, so I'm past this stage, thank Zeus. Both of my boys, somehow, picked up very early that "pink is for girls," so they never wanted either pink or purple toys. They both love red for shirts, beach towels, whatever.

I've always hated the girly color marketing thing. It reinforces stereotypes for both boys and girls. Unfortunately, enough parents must be buying the junk to make it worth producing and selling. I don't if I should blame the manufacturers & marketers, or the consumers, for continuing this stuff. It's very unhealthy for boys and girls individually and for society as a whole.

Anonymous said...

correction on previous post: I don't know if I should blame, etc. Sorry. I'll have to proof read next time.

Lynet said...

That's painful. I mean, they're going to have to learn it -- and they will -- because the "pink is for girls" idea isn't one that boys can survive without knowing. I think the best you can hope for is that they grow into people who are aware of the stereotype, and break it where they can.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

I know what you mean -- gendered toys for tiny kids and even babies are pretty disturbing.

Hey Ima!!!

I liked boy toys better than girl toys as a kid too. Whenever people would get little presents for us, it seemed like my brother would get something active and fun to play with, and my sister and I would get jewelry or something, which was nice but not as exciting...

Hey Chaplain!!!

Personally I'd give the manufacturers some of the blame since they're marketing this stuff directly to kids (during children's programming). The kids aren't old enough to make an informed decision about what they want, and it's hard for parents to counter it without isolating the kids from mainstream society and culture (which I don't recommend).

So, yeah, the parents could be trying harder, but parenting is already hard. I hate to see stumbling blocks placed in the parents' path and then have people tell them it's all their fault for stumbling...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lynet!!!

That's a good point. Being aware of the situation and willing to talk about it once they're old enough to understand is probably the solution.

King Aardvark said...

I agree with whoever said that babies are the most genderless things around. I was at a party on Saturday that turned into a baby get-together (there were 5 or 6 babies there and only 3 people who didn't have babies/young children). Dammit, I had no freakin' clue which babies were male and which were female.

MattMan said...

I would buy the boy the pink phone if that's what he asked for. Of course, as you learned, it quickly becomes bigger than just you as a parent -- children are still raised "by the village" so to speak, so they're going to catch hell in school for something outside what the programming says the "norm" is.

I do see that changing, albeit very slowly, but as mr. fob said, it's changing more for the girls more quickly. I don't think that's intention or have any conspiracy theories on it, I'll just welcome the change and hope similar change comes for boys as well.

My son has two older sisters, so I hope he'll have a well-developed sensitive side and avoid most of the stereotypical garbage. He does have decidedly "boy" interests mostly, but as far as I can tell, they are his natural interests that haven't been forced on him.

I try to do all I can to play against the stereotypes myself, in hopes that they can see through them. For example, I'm currently undergoing the dental torture known as braces (if your children need these when they're young, like 12ish, do it! it sucks doing it as an adult!). I rotate through choices of band colors based on each of my children. My oldest daughter typically chooses a form of blue (and isn't really isn't girly girl things, besides always wanting clothes, though wouldn't be caught dead in pink). My second oldest is a pinky pink girl, so this month I'm sporting hot pink brace bands on my teeth. My son usually goes for some form of green.

I hope my little choices like this do help set an example that stereotypes don't matter and you can be who you are and be happy with that. Or maybe they just think their dad is a nutjob. Maybe a little bit of both.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MattMan!!!

Well, that's nice that your kids haven't fallen too deeply into the gendered-toy thing, but you're right about how this is an example of the "it takes a village" phenomenon. As positive as that sounds, sometimes individual parents don't agree with the rest of the village... ;^)

BEEHIVE said...

I think that overall, girls have it easier than boys. Now days, girls can be femenine and smart, but I have yet to see or hear any one encourage boys to search their femenie side and pick up the pink with confidence!

I believe that ultimatly, it is up to us, the parents to re-direct our sons and daughter believes and not let the out side influence take over.

My 10 yr old son is very much a boy, and even though I have never tought him what girls should or sould not be doing, he has sadly picked up some pretty demanted views. It is up to me...super mom, to inform him that girls and kick his butt in martial arts class and look good doing it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Beehive!!!

It's true that parents need to take responsibility for talking to their kids about this. I know I said the toy manufacturers deserve some of the blame, but that doesn't mean the parents are completely off the hook... ;^)

Anonymous said...

I think the story's just sad. Your son had a fabulous sparkly pink phone and it was taken from him. That's sad.

If the phone were sparkly midnight blue or sparkly forest green, do you think it would have been neutral enough for boys? Or is "sparkly" always sort of girly?

If so, that's sad too. Because sparkly is cool. For many years, it was my nephew's favorite color. (Paisley is mine.)


C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

I think it was the pink aspect more than the sparkliness. Manly guys can at least get away with shiny accessories (chrome on cars and motorcycles), and rich guys seem to be okay with sparkly diamond-studded Rolexes...

Cyn Bagley said...

My dad took my small car away from me when I was eight. "Not a girl toy," he said.

Let 'em play. They will have to deal with gender issues all their lives. And kids should be allowed to be kids.

Gender shouldn't even be an issue until they hit puberty. :-)

Anonymous said...

I try very hard to avoid the gender stereotyping stuff, but it's very hard to avoid it as I have relatives that are very into it. My 4 yr old son is very creative and has a great imagination. He loves to use anything and everything in his play, and I don't try to discourage him from using the more "girly" toys. Neither do I discourage my now 2 yr old daughter from playing with or liking the more masculine type toys. She loves to play dinosaurs and racing cars with her brother and she loves the Geo Trax train stuff as well.

My son's best friend at preschool is a little girl and he loves to play in the kiddy kitchen set with her during play time. I want all my kids to feel free to explore their interests, whatever they might be. If my daughter ended up beinga paleontologist and my son ended up being an interior designer I'd be fine with that. Whatever makes them happy.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

That's awful you dad would do that!! It's bad enough that the getting such restrictive messages from society -- it's sad when their parents are limiting their horizons as well.

Hey INTJMom!!!

Great attitude!!! :D