Gender Blender

When it Comes to Gender-Specific Toys, Expose Don’t Impose

An edited version of this article appeared in Time Out Abu Dhabi Kids in December 2006 – find it online here.

When three year old Andrew Barnett of midtown Abu Dhabi encountered his first toy pram, he was in heaven. “All the children at his play group wanted to play with the pram, so I bought him one for Christmas,” recalls Irien Fernando, Andrew’s nanny, “but I was afraid his father would be angry with me because prams are for girls.” For decades, psychologists and parents alike have pondered the issue of gender specific toys—should kids learn to play with toys intended for the opposite gender, or should they stick with the toys designed for them?

The answer, according to Dr. Roqhy McCarthy of the Counseling and Development Clinic in Jumeirah, is neither. “When I began my PhD back in the 1970s, there was a big push for parents to give their children toys intended for the opposite gender, so when my daughters were born, I gave them trucks and building blocks.” Contrary to the findings of the time, however, this exposure made no difference at all. “My girls still wanted to play with dolls and dress up.” McCarthy even recalls a colleague who went so far as to give her daughter a toy gun. “She thought she was being progressive until she discovered that her daughter had wrapped up the gun in a blanket just like it was a baby.”

Though many parents agree that kids should have the opportunity to play with all kinds of toys, just how far should that exposure go? Even if you are doing your level best to teach your children to see across the lines of gender, chances are they’ll play with what they like no matter what you do. “I grew up with four sisters and no brothers,” recalls Terrence Hards of Dubai Marina. “I would play with their Barbie dolls with them, but while their Barbies were mothers and princesses, my Barbie was storming the enemy barracks and throwing grenades.” In other words, there’s no point in pushing a toy into the hands of a kid who’s just not interested.

Jo Shaban, managing director of Bright Beginnings Nursery in Mushrif, Abu   Dhabi agrees. “Here at the nursery, all the kids play with all the toys, and we don’t encourage them or discourage them one way or the other. If a boy wants to dress up in a pink gown, we let him, just as we wouldn’t stop a girl from putting on the Batman costume. We don’t need to steer them towards particular toys—for the most part, they end up dabbling in just about every type of play, and they should. They’re children, and childhood is about experiencing new things.”

“What most researchers suggest,” says McCarthy, who has treated thousands, “is that kids often choose toys and play games that help them to identify with their parents.” In the past, it was this reason that inspired many little girls to reach for their dolls and their brothers to ask for trucks and shovels. But these days, fathers are becoming more and more involved in child rearing. If David Beckham and Brad Pitt are proud to have paparazzi take endless photos of them carrying nappy bags and wheeling prams, it’s no big surprise to find more and more little boys want to do the same.

Of course, the greatest fear of some parents—especially fathers—is that kids who play with toys intended for the opposite gender will grow up to be gay. While Andrew Barnett’s forward-thinking father had no problem letting his son imitate natural parenting, Andrew’s cousin Wyatt wasn’t so lucky. “His father refused to let him have a pram,” sighs Wyatt’s mother Lena McMahon. “He was afraid that letting Wyatt play with a ‘girl’ toy would make him grow up to be gay.” However, says Dr McCarthy, a clinical psychologist, there’s absolutely no evidence to support that children who play with toys designed for the opposite gender will grow up to be homosexual.

“Some parents come to the clinic very worried because their sons are interested in dolls and pink colours,” explains McCarthy, “but childhood is too early to say what a person’s ultimate sexual orientation will be.” So what would make a little boy yearn to wear a tutu and tiara? “Some boys are born with an eye for beauty and details—they may be gentler than other boys, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be homosexual.” Consider, in fact, the number of men who excel in traditionally female professions. Some would describe cooking as women’s work, but Dubai resident Gordon Ramsey, for example, is arguably the most famous chef in the world. One look at his burly exterior leaves no question as to his masculinity.

Similarly, if your daughter is a little tom boy who spurns the very idea of tulle and ballet slippers, there’s no reason to believe she won’t grow up to be a lady. “A girl’s mothering instinct is down to hormones,” says McCarthy, who has studied and worked in France and the Middle East. “In one study, when male rats were injected with female hormones, they responded to their babies the same way the female rats would behave.” In other words, a lack of maternal instinct is no bearing on how feminine a girl will eventually be.

Regardless of your child’s preferences, suggests McCarthy, it’s the duty of the parent to accept a son’s gentleness or a daughter’s rough and tumble personality. Unfortunately, says Shaban, a long time educator, society will likely take its toll soon enough. “Once kids get into primary school, peer pressure tends to dictate their choices, especially for boys. In most cases, a boy who played with ‘girl’ toys would be teased, although the same is less likely to be true for a girl playing with ‘boy’ toys.”

Ultimately, it’s a waste of time—and potentially harmful—to push or refuse toys based on the gender specificity. “The more you make a big deal out of it,” says Shaban, “the more likely it is that your kid will develop issues.” Instead of trying to impose the choice on your kids, expose them to all kinds of toys but let them play with what they like.