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Pink vs. Blue: Boys, Girls and the Toys They Love

Which came first: girls' love of everything pink or pink-packaged toys aimed at girls?

That chicken-and-egg question is at the center of a small-scale study out of Britain that looks at how toys impact learning by gender.

"People might think that toys are more androgynous these days, but go into any toy shop and you will find separate aisles, and even separate floors, for girls and boys," Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, told The Guardian last month. "The packaging is geared towards either boys or girls by colour, wording and the images portrayed on them. This creates the impression that certain toys are just for boys and others just for girls, and so some toys are completely out of bounds."

In her look at toys and DVDs geared toward children ages 3 to 5, Francis first sought out favorites from preschoolers, as told by their parents in a questionnaire. In most cases, boys' favorite toys were "characterized stereotypically by action, construction and machinery." Girls' favorites, meanwhile, were those catering to stereotypical feminine interests such as nurturing and appearance.

These early toy preferences may point to later preferences in school achievement and ultimately professional choices, Francis says. "Girls tend not to enjoy traditionally masculine subjects, particularly science; boys still tend to outperform girls at higher-level maths," she wrote in an e-mail. "I might suggest that if boys are inculcated into construction and technology via their play, as a form of entertainment, they may be inclined to feel these curriculum areas more familiar and less daunting/challenging."

But could some of these preferences be hard-wired rather than parent-inflicting? Francis thinks not. "There has been research purporting to show that girls' preference for pink is innate, yet many cultures do not link pink to femininity (the trend apparently emerged post-War from the U.S.), and pink was historically considered masculine even in the West," she writes.

What do you think? Do we teach our girls from birth to be nurturing and our boys to be more scientific by buying into gender marketing? Or do they show those preferences on their own?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  January 12, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development
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1. Some of the stuff is hard-wired.
2. Some of the stuff is socialized.
3. Some of the stuff is preference.

Each child is an individual.

Posted by: jezebel3 | January 12, 2009 7:30 AM | Report abuse

We haven't descended into a pink-filled household yet, and her daycare is very neutral, too. Until around 22 months, a trip to Toys R Us was uneventful. Now rounding the corner to Pinkland leads to non-stop "I like it, I like it, I like it." Constructionland doesn't elicit such a response. She has officially abandoned the cars for baby dolls and doll houses. She was given a choice, and she chose.

However, I'm a scientist, so I don't fall into the bad-at-math-and-science category. I also do a lot of physical/natural world parenting (and "aunting" before then), so I doubt she'll have nurturing issues in math and science. What she's innately good at, time will tell. I certainly hope (and believe) I'll have a bigger influence on her than marketing will. Peer influences will definitely be the bigger competition.

Posted by: atb2 | January 12, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

I bought as much blue as pink when my girls were babies and our house has always had as many neutral or boy toys as girl. However, when my little ones are playing it is the dolls and ponies they are reaching for, not the trains and tool set.

My oldest frilly pink princess loves math and science and excels at this point. She is too young to predict how far she will take it or how long her interest/success will continue, but I don't think her princess obsession at the age of 4 was at all a factor. I think that our encouragement of her interest has been more influential.

Posted by: thosewilsongirls | January 12, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Jezebel.

My sister was convinced it was all socialization until she had boy-girl twins.

My son has a doll he got when I was having my daughter, and it still gets played with on occasion. But he definitely trends toward electronics more so than my daughter, always has. My daughter is a princess full tilt, and three of her teachers say they think she'll be an engineer. Something to do with arranging and patterns. I don't care what they end up doing as long as they're happy and healthy.

I try very hard to stay away from violent movies and shows or trampy girl stuff for both kids.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | January 12, 2009 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Honestly, I think kids are more hard wired then we would like to admit. Not saying they always fall under traditional gender stereotyping. But kids like what they like and I am not sure you can change it that much.

My daughter has been given the opportunity to play with both "girl" and "boy" toys. She prefers play dishes, play food, doll play, small figures, and dresses. She prefers the softer more feminine colors but will wear all sorts of colors. Style seems to dominate color for her.

She has never had a lot of interest in the Disney Princesses. She has yet to watch one of their films. But she loves the fairies.

She has been given cars, blocks, legos and trains. She has had only a mild interest in all of the above.

My son, who is 6 months old, is growing up in a world of dolls and girl world because of his older sister. But he is already totally fascinated by toy cars and trains.

He actually likes the dolls because he thinks they are other real babies. But once he figures out they are fake, I think he will move on.

Posted by: foamgnome | January 12, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

I think it's a mix of both. I know I'm guilty of dressing my DD in more than her share of pink and purple (hey, what can I say? Those colors look best on her), so it's not surprising that she claims pink as her favorite color. We tried to be gender neutral in her toys for the first two years, but she still somehow ended up with a much higher proportion of dolls and stuffed animals to cars.

But there are some things that sure seem innate, like the princess thing. DH and deliberately tried not to expose her to that whole scam, and for a while it seemed to be working. But somewhere in the last two months, it's like a switch was thrown. DD is princess-obsessed. She can name every one of the Disney princesses, even though she hasn't seen any of their movies (except the Little Mermaid), and now asks me to go "visit" their dolls when we're at Target.

Her friends are also obsessed. One little girl's mom tried her best to raise her daughter gender neutral -- very little pink, few dresses, gender-neutral toys. All that kid wanted for her birthday was a "pink princess party," and now she walks into our house for a playdate and immediately asks if we have any princess dresses to wear. Her mom (and I) have decided to surrender for a little while and see if the obsession burns out on its own.

Posted by: newsahm | January 12, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

I believe a lot of it is hardwired. Both husband & I are scientists, so hopefully, DD will not be intimidated by science & math. She loves purple, princesses, fairies, etc. I have neither encouraged nor discouraged it. DH has tried very hard to buy her "masculine" toys. She loves her toy cars. When she plays with them, she picks them up, plops them in a purse and announces: "I am going to the grocery store now." What can one do? She does however, play appropriately with her toy chainsaw and told us that for Christmas she wanted: "A bow and arrow to shoot deer to get venison because I already have a chainsaw." Yep, DH bow hunts & cuts down a lot of trees.

Posted by: buggal | January 12, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Ditto jezebel3's comment.

That being said, my opinions before kids and after kids have changed. Before kids, I would have said socialization was the primary factor. Now that DD is here, I am beginning to wonder. From the age of 1 she wanted to wear necklaces and bows. She was given a pair of Minnie Mouse princess shoes this Christmas and she wears them constantly (if permitted). As a well groomed but non girly, non-pink wearing, non-princess (well, I do have a royal attitude ;-) parent I wonder daily about her preferences and their impact. Do I fight the pink girly princess world (problem of backlash and over controlling) or just wait and see (problem of locking DD into stereotyped roles)? Maybe we'll go outside today to stomp in the mud puddles while wearing the Minnie Mouse princess shoes (canary yellow!)?

Posted by: ishgebibble | January 12, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I began to suspect some serious hardwiring when my daughters got a package of little plastic dinosaurs and lined them all up -- T Rex and all -- to play school!

We've had plenty of blocks, Legos, K'nex etc. in the house all along and they've been popular with my girls. But I have a seventh grader now in advanced math who finds it annoying to be in a class so dominated by boys. She continues to excel but says she doesn't like math class, though her teacher is female.

There is evidence that women self-select away from math/engineering/science because many women see themselves as more "people" oriented and I see that tendency very clearly in eldest DD. People skills do have an important role to play in these fields and I wish that got a little more emphasis.

Posted by: annenh | January 12, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I'll throw another ditto to jezebel. They like what they like and unless it's something that's harmful, there's no reason not to let them enjoy what they want.

Posted by: dennis5 | January 12, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree that some is hard wired/some is socialization.
My son's favorite color for a while was pink. Now that he's older, and it's not cool, his fave color is red (also has to do with dad's football team). I got him a kitchen when he was smaller, and he LOVED to 'cook' in it - for long periods of time. The younger one did the same. Now they're not so into it - sometimes the younger one (3) will go and put stuff in the microwave, but not much. I just think it's an age thing.
I got the older one a doll and stroller when the second was born and he LOVED it (it was almost impossible to find one that wasn't pink). Some of the biggest fights NOW are over those two toys!
I am one of three girls, and my mom NEVER dressed us in pink. She did not like pink. She said the idea of three girls in pink really sickened her. So none of us wore pink til we were a little older, and even now, none of us is very into it as a color (well, unless it's bright, it just looks horrible on all of us!).
I definitely think that boys and girls are different, but I also think there's a lot of parent participation, even if we don't realize it.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | January 12, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Another thing to consider in regards to socialization is that it's more than just the toys and what color clothes they wear. It's also seeing mom come home from work and then going right to the kitchen to get dinner ready for the family, it's mom doing the laundry on the weekend, or mom going to the grocery store with the kids. So, much of daily life can undercut attempts at a more gender-neutral upbringing.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | January 12, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

How can we possibly think that it's hard-wired when children's preferences have clearly reflected cultural norms for centuries. They do what we tell them is good and normal. And they struggle to defeat those norms; it often causes a child major trauma to admit to parents and friends that they like something that they're not supposed to (e.g. boys who like dolls). I wish for a world in which we haven't coded everything according to gender so that our children can truly decide who they are and what they like.

Taz Tagore
Parenting Expert

Posted by: TazTagore | January 12, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

How can we possibly think that it's hard-wired when children's preferences have clearly reflected cultural norms for centuries.

Taz Tagore
Parenting Expert

Posted by: TazTagore | January 12, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

SOME of it is hard-wired, nitwit!

Posted by: jezebel3 | January 12, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

My older daughter started out as a sort of tomboy, then last year she went dress-crazy. I've had no trouble with that because finding non-trampy dresses at yard sales was not difficult, although I did have to draw the line when she wanted to wear a dress "just like the Mennonites around here" for fear of mocking or insulting them. She did go through a princess phase for a while, both Disney and Shrek, but that seems to be waning. She's not as "girly" in her toys as one would think though...she likes to play with her trains, crayons, paints, and Marble Racer more than dolls. My younger daughter isn't into that sort of thing yet, but then again she's not even two. So there must be some hardwiring at work, but I'm not letting them watch "junk" TV like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, partly because the shows are anything but educational, and partly because the commercials for junk food and junk toys always result in them getting the "galloping gimmies."

And I've got good reason for banning those channels, too. In college, I once spent half a year watching children's programming and keeping track of the commercials that were aimed at specific genders. The results were slightly surprising; even in this day and age the overwhelming majority of commercials for children's toys showed boys playing more with construction toys, action figures, etc. and girls playing with dolls, animals, and traditional "girly" toys. Only a scant number of commercials showed the genders mixing or crossing traditional roles...I believe my results came out around 90% of the commercials were based along traditional gender lines, and this was in the mid-1990's!

Am I the only one who finds that disturbing?

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | January 12, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

This is a topic I've thought about. I do think there is a lot of hard-wiring but also socialization at play. I grew up in the home of you can be what you want to be so was never pushed into typical female roles but I always loved Barbies. I didn't stop playing with those until my teens.

What I want to know is what parents whose children play with the "opposite" toys really think deep down. My people, including me, see some children and think they are probably gay, not just from the toys they play with but also the mannerisms they portray. I wonder if parents recognize this or think "it is just a phase." Anyone have any experience on this?

Posted by: lafilleverte | January 12, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Jezebel summed it up.

I think this is also a case of how much one can influence a personality. Some say you can mold a baby to be whatever you want (and those people have clearly never had kids). I found that my kids had personalities in the womb and have shown different likes and dislikes that vary more by personality than gender. Still, the boys have been CRAZY about trains and my daughter loves pink and princesses. I have always HATED pink and princesses, so go figure. However, of the three, my husband and I (both engineers) think our daughter is the most likely to be an engineer when she grows up. We have a full shelf of puzzles that she is the main one to play with and she is already helping her older brother with his legos (and she is three).

Being an engineer, I can agree that there is a perception problem with engineering and science - that it is impersonal and uninteresting. I think that needs to change before anyone can make the assumption that if you like pink and babies and playing kitchen you won't grow up to be an engineer and scientist. When a child that wears a pink princess dress to preschool can be thought to like math and science, we'll have come further than if we try and convince girls not to prefer "girlie" things and boys to stay away from trucks and trains and such.

Just for the record, I not only HATE pink and princesses, but was inundated with them as a child. My mother could not (still can't, actually) comprehend a girl that preferred legos over Barbie. Luckily, my Dad saw where my interests lay and encouraged me.

Posted by: cqjudge | January 12, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Both my children show the 'engineer/science/math' gene - but in different ways.
Anyway, as a kid, I was the third of three girls. I never got new toys, I had whatever I had (nothing like kids today have, definitely!). I remember always wanting to get cars - especially when seeing those commercials for those cool cars, with the racetracks, etc. I really really wanted those. It never occurred to me to ask for that, though - 1) I never (okay almost never) got new toys or anything I asked for, and 2) I think it didn't occur to me to ask for something like that, since it wasn't girlie and it was only boys who played with the cars on tv and we didn't have it in the house already - so they couldn't have been for girls...
I had these great barbies, my grandmother used to make clothes for them, etc. I liked them, but only played with them when I had friends over (and when I was waaaay older, ran into an old friend and she completely remembered the barbies and how jealous she was of them). I do remember having wooden blocks and LOVING playing with them....

Posted by: atlmom1234 | January 12, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

DH is a wonderful cook, and younger son is happily learning all about cooking, seasonings, techniques, and such from his dad. Older son has no particular interest, but he's learned enough to feed himself adequately, same as me.

Both boys definitely inherited their math genes from me, not from DH who is severely math-challenged. Younger son likes to garden, but he's more into growing food in the veggie patch. Older son loves sunflowers, but otherwise has no interest in gardening. Nobody else loves the roses and lilies like I do.

In short, they're individuals. And since their role-models - DH and me - are a long way outside the cultural norms, the boys get to look at the world from a non-biased perspective, and pursue whatever interests them, not get slotted into anything at all because of gender. Still, army/shooting games interest them both more than baby-dolls, and they've had both as toys.

Posted by: SueMc | January 12, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Pretty soon after Christmas, I was in my local Target store, and an older woman was buying a WAY COOL Lionel train set for her only grandDAUGHTER, who she said would be ecstatic. Granddaughter is an only child, so that will rock for her! I hate the fallacy that adverts have that girls ONLY like pink and doll houses, when nothing could be further from the truth!

There's a great song out, from many years ago, by Peggy Seeger called "I wanna be an engineer!" and is available on ITunes. Listen and laugh from it!

Posted by: Alex511 | January 12, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

A story which may cast some light on the subject.

On the planet Glorp, the TumTum tree bears particularly nutritious fruit, ripe when it's purple.

Female Glorps do the hunting, but male ones being of lighter build, gather fruit. So there's an evolutionary selection for both male Glorps having a more acute sense of colour, and for all Glorps, male or female, to prefer purple to green.

Male Glorps start wearing purple clothing, because it's more aesthetically pleasing. Female Glorps don't really care at first, Purple is better than Green, but it's no big deal.

Soon though peer pressure amongst female Glorps makes them look upon female Glorps who wear purple as being "un-Feminine", "Butch" even, as the males all do that. And peer pressure amongst male glorps soon leads them to wear Purple, and nothing but Purple, as otherwise they are accused of being "sissy", effeminate. Even though without this social pressure, all Glorps would tend to prefer Purple rather than Green - the males just a bit more strongly.

There is a biological difference between male and female Glorps, but it has nothing to do with preferring Green vs Purple. The preference is a social construct, but the social construct is based on biology.

Male and Female brains differ, and not just in overall size, but the way they're organised. Men and Women think, and more importantly, *feel* in different ways. Except it's not even that simple, it's a BiModal distribution, not a binary one. There's overlap, and some men will think in some ways in a pattern more commonly found in females, and some females will think in some ways in patterns more commonly found in males.

If Neurology was the only determinant, perhaps 30% of Engineers would be female. But in fact, it's only about 10% - the social constructs due to peer pressure dominate.

So yes, there's a biological basis, statistically speaking. And yes, what we call "gendered behaviour" is mostly a social construct, much of which is a result of the hard-wiring, though not always in the way we'd expect. And finally, people are individuals, not statistics, and should be treated as such. Most Japanese are shorter than most Swedes, but no basketball team would reject a 6'6" tall Japanese in favour of a 5' 0" Swede just because "Swedes are taller".

Yet this kind of discrimination happens all the time when it comes to gender.

For anyone who doesn't believe the biological differences lead to differences in behaviour, just ask those with radically cross-gendered neurology - the transsexuals. Such people have very strong gender differences in their neurology, more so than the average, but the polarity is inconsistent with the rest of the body's appearance.

Posted by: aebrain | January 13, 2009 5:09 AM | Report abuse

What I want to know is what parents whose children play with the "opposite" toys really think deep down. My people, including me, see some children and think they are probably gay, not just from the toys they play with but also the mannerisms they portray. I wonder if parents recognize this or think "it is just a phase." Anyone have any experience on this?

Posted by: lafilleverte | January 12, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

What you left out is that this is only an issue with boys who like to play with traditionally girl toys. A girl who likes to do "boy" stuff is usually called a tomboy, but a boy who likes to do "girl" stuff is usually called a sissy or something with negative connotations.

Posted by: dennis5 | January 13, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I don't really know what to think about the nature v. nurture debate. I've been on both sides of the fence. My husband and I are both lawyers and I work the longer hours. I do many of the traditinal roles around the home, but am very clear about avoiding gender stereotypes where I can. If we are in my car, I drive and if we are in my husband's car, he drives. When we asked my then 3 year old son about a plane trip, he said "Daddy can be the pilot, I can be the co-pilot, and Mommy can serve the food." I can't believe it's hard wired - - they get so many subtle cues from everyday life (TV, shopping, listening to conversations, daily observations of who does what, etc.) that I have to believe so much of it is learned.

Posted by: ElaineatLipstickdaily | January 13, 2009 9:07 PM | Report abuse

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