Ok, I’m taking a deep breath and being brave with this one because I know that some people are going to take it the wrong way.
So before I start, I’ll tell you that my Little One (2 and a half), spent a morning being dragged round Toys R Us the other day by his big brother, who was very indecisive about how to spend his birthday money. As the Little One had been so well behaved, to-ing and fro-ing between aisles, I let him choose a little toy. He could choose anything from the store.
And he chose this My Little Pony.
Now I haven’t shared a post on Instagram about this or written a lengthy essay about it on Facebook. I haven’t even shared it online at all until now. Because it never occurred to me to do so. It is just a toy that he has chosen.
Yes, it was in an aisle so bright and so pink that it gave me a mild headache. Yes, it was on the side of the store with lots of other pink toys. But you know what? THAT’s what made it so easy to find it. I could navigate my way around the store because I knew the My Little Pony toys would be somewhere in the sea of pink. And I knew the Cars 3 stuff would be amongst the gargantuan section of toy cars.
No one told me these were the boys or girls toys. Are my children receiving subliminal messages about these being ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys? Not from the store I don’t believe.
Because when I was in the shop, I didn’t mention anything about boys and girls toys. Just toys. Because, to put it frankly, I don’t have a big chip on my shoulder about how society is subconsciously sending messages to my children about being a ‘stereotypical boy’ or a ‘stereotypical girl’.
When stores put children’s toys and clothes into sections, it is to make it easier for people to locate things. Like how they put all the fruit in one place in a supermarket and all the biscuits down the same aisle. It would be really frustrating if you just popped in for a loaf of bread and had to search manically, finding it, finally, on a shelf between the condoms and the cornflakes.
Recently, Target, in America, introduced a gender neutral children’s aisle after a parent complained. I honestly don’t believe that big organisations are trying to pigeonhole everyone by organising clothes into boys and girls. They are trying to make it easier for people to locate things. Target doesn’t need a gender neutral aisle. It needs manufacturers and designers who are aware that girls might like dinosaurs and boys might like kittens. If the clothing sections weren’t complete polar opposites, there’d be fewer issues.
Now if you are concerned about your little girl needing to understand that she doesn’t HAVE to wear the clothes in the girls section, then take her around the boys section too, without drawing loads of attention to it. Because the more we make a big deal of things to young children, the more things become a big deal. Of course, as they get older and are able to read shop signs then this gets a bit muddy. But it goes back to those manufacturers and designers mentioned above.
My boys watch My Little Pony. My eldest collects Shopkins. They have enough train track to cover every square inch of my downstairs carpet and they like playing with dinosaurs. Have I subconsciously introduced them to cars and trains over Barbies? Maybe, I don’t know. But does it matter? They clearly feel comfortable enough holding a My Little Pony Fash’em round Sainsbury’s so I don’t really care.
Stereotypes exist for a reason. It doesn’t mean we have to conform to them but it also doesn’t mean we should dismiss them simply through fear that they become self-fulfilling. There are so many natural differences between males and females in general that are nothing to do with nurture. And the reasons for these differences are simple: hormones. Testosterone and oestrogen naturally occur at very different levels, in general, between males and females. This is why men don’t race women in the 100 metre sprint at the olympics. It’s not because the Ancient Greeks were sending subliminal messages about gender identity; it’s just basic biology.
We all have choices. If we want our children to be strong, confident individuals who wear pink and love wrestling, no matter what their gender, then we need to give them EVERY option and demonstrate that they can make their own choices.
I want my children to grow up with a strong sense of self and personal identity. I don’t want anyone to tell my child that he can’t like pink because it’s a girls colour – and I’ll tell him that’s ridiculous – it’s simply a colour. But I also don’t want him to grow up thinking everyone is the same. There are fundamental differences between boys and girls, men and women. It doesn’t necessarily mean they should conform to a stereotype but, and this is the important bit here; it doesn’t matter if they do.
We shouldn’t encourage absolutely everything to be gender neutral, but rather work to discourage gender stereotypes, so that our children know they can dress as they like and play with the toys they like, whilst being aware of the fact that it is also absolutely OK to be a boy and like diggers and blue jumpers.
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