Friday 23 February 2018

A neutral future for guys and dolls

Does the world have to be divided into Action Man and Barbie doll children, or is there an alternative?

Hugo and Nora Dillon at home in Sandyford, Dublin
Hugo and Nora Dillon at home in Sandyford, Dublin
Whatever: Hugo and Norah Dillon, pictured at home in Sandyford, Dublin, are equally interested in toys for both sexes
Jody Dillon with daughter Leah
Storm in a teacup: This Canadian four-month-old will be raised 'gender neutral'

Mary Kirwan

DURING a recent trip to a toy shop with my three-year-old son, I was confronted with the following sign: 'Girls here, boys there.' The boys' section looked like Jeremy Clarkson's driveway, crammed with cars, bikes and monster trucks. The girls' toys could have been hand-picked by Katie Price with the usual pink suspects like princess costumes, dolls and glitter.

Toy segregation is an ever-growing phenomenon and toy shops are facing a backlash from 'right-on' parents for excessive pinkness. The UK-based campaign group Pink Stinks has launched its anti-pink crusade against the Early Learning Centre.

Co-founder Abi Moore says: "We are constantly being asked by parents 'What can we do?' Parents of girls and boys alike are sick of the marketing messages and the gender assumptions children are forced to lap up."

Pink Stinks say their aim is to challenge the culture of pink which they say invades girls' lives.

"We focus on providing real role models who inspire and motivate girls to achieve great things based on ability and effort and not how you look," Pink Stinks says.

Another organisation challenging traditional gender stereotyping is CRAP! (Child Rearing Against Patriarchy!) who in their mission statement say: "We want to actively challenge the tirade of sexist, racist, capitalist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist and ableist toys, media and literature produced for children."

Canadian parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocke have taken gender-neutral parenting to the limit with their recent decision not to reveal the sex of their four-month-old baby Storm. In an attempt to raise a gender-neutral child, Storm's parents say they want to leave it up to Storm whether he or she wants to live as a boy or a girl.

The couple already have two sons Jazz (five) and Kio (two), who wear dresses and grow their hair long. Jazz is often mistaken for a girl and has suffered as a result of his appearance.

Based on their experiences with their son Jazz, Kathy and David decided to raise Storm as genderless after reading the 1978 children's book 'X: A Fabulous Child's Story'. This is the story of a child raised with no gender as part of a scientific experiment. X liked both basket weaving and football, and ended up the most well adjusted of all children.

Child psychologist Sheila Greene is head of the Children's Research Centre in Trinity College Dublin. She points out another case in Sweden in 2009, where a couple also decided to raise their child, Pop, as gender neutral.

"They are carrying out an experiment and are taking it to an extreme. I think it's bordering on child abuse."

As for toy segregation, Sheila feels it has only become worse over the years and that parents should be annoyed.

"Gender segregation of toys has increased in toy shops and on TV, so good on those parents trying to combat it.

"Marketers have it down to a fine art. If you shut your eyes and listen to TV ads you can tell straight away who the toys are marketed to," she says.

"They have invested a lot of money in these things and are into sex segregation in a big way."

Sheila believes adults don't appreciate how much our children are being bombarded with gender stereotyping.

"It is hard to combat it because toys are devised so the child believes this is especially for them and is waiting for them to develop a special relationship."

Experts say there is something innate in us to gender identify and this is why pre-schoolers are so keen to separate everything into boy/girl stereotypes.

It is argued the development of the child's gender identity is formed as a result of both their sex and environment. This is highlighted by studies that show that up until age one, boys and girls like dolls.

After that, boys gravitate towards trucks. At the age of three girls like dolls over trucks but by the age of five they have equal interest in trucks and dolls.

Greene believes the heavy bombardment of gender-specific toys can affect natural childhood development.

"Children become very sex-role stereotyped. It is quite rigid, even as young as pre-school. Parents need to think about it, as it is not giving parents or children a choice.

"Girls are not naturally drawn to pink. By the age of seven, eight or nine children stop the strong gender identification and begin to explore themselves as individuals," she says.

"Unfortunately, with the constant, rigid media message of what is expected of the sexes, they are not coming out the other side. It is a phase that shouldn't last long.

"It is quite depressing really. In our TCD study 'Growing Up in Ireland', among nine-year-olds we found gender stereotyping very extreme and very divided. People shouldn't foster the differences between sexes," she adds.

"It can be quite damaging for girls if they are expected to be wearing frills, high heels and to be pretty. What if they fail to live up to this image? It's ridiculous. Boys are also under pressure to be footballers."

There are also double standards because it's less acceptable for boys to play with girl-orientated toys.

"This has always been the case because of homosexuality. Boys have to be actively masculine and girls have to be passively feminine," says Professor Greene.

Mum-of-two Linda Dillon has strong opinions on toy segregation.

"I find the gender division of toys very frustrating. My daughter is not very girly and doesn't like everything pink. I hate the concept of the pink aisle and the boy aisle," she explains.

Linda says Norah (four) and Hugo (two) have equal interest in toys for both sexes.

"The girl aisles are full of nail varnish, tiaras and costumes. My son is as interested in them as my daughter. She likes to go around the whole shop and not just stick to the 'her' aisle. She would never go into the doll section while my son has a little pram that he likes to push around.

"There really is an expectation of what boys and girls like when it comes to toys. Personally I like to focus on generic stuff like colourful wooden toys or jigsaws. They both love animals so they both like My Little Pet Shop."

It is not always easy keeping things gender neutral with outside influences.

"Of course we get lots of frilly things as presents. The external gender thing is brought into the house by other people. There is also pressure from other children who will say things like that's a girly T-shirt or those are boy trousers," says Linda.

The Sandyford-based mum thinks gender stereotyping is definitely an adult problem.

"Adults have an expectation that boys are macho and girls are girly. My son likes to play dress-up as much as other children.

"As my daughter is getting older, it is getting more difficult to find gender-neutral toys. She does think pink is a girl colour. She recently got a Dora head and loves painting her face and putting her hair up."

Clothing is another problem area for parents. "My pet hate is the pinkness of girls' clothes with slogans like 'Little Princess' or 'I Love Shopping'," says Linda.

The mum of two finds balance is the best approach and doesn't remember toys being so gender-specific growing up.

"I would never be negative and say 'Don't play with that toy.' Having a selection of toys is the healthiest approach.

"When my daughter says she wants to be a ballerina, the feminist in me will always tell her she can be a scientist or doctor too!" she adds.

How parents react when a child plays with a particular toy has a big influence on the child. Studies have shown that while there is a biological bias towards a toy there's also strong social reinforcement of that choice of toy.

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