Toy Boy?

This past weekend, my wife and I stopped by at a nearby “home showcase.” Basically, the idea is that a number of construction companies build a model house in the same area, and then you can visit all the big name companies and see their wares at the same location. In Japan, that means companies like “Seki-sui Haim,” “Daiwa House,” and “Ichijo Koumuten.” (The “haim” is “heim” in German, i.e., home…no idea why a company would have two divisions with one using “home” and one using “heim”…)

At any rate, the homes were far too large for the amount of land we are likely to afford. But it was an interesting experience. Except for our daughter.

She did behave quite well at first, but it was a hot day and we talked with (read –> were talked at by) a sales representative for about two straight hours. Fortunately, one of the companies’ model homes came with a children’s play rooms. Our daughter was too young to use the Wii (which was being used by a older girl anyway). But she was just the right age to appreciate Pokeman cars. The sales rep seemed a little surprised at her choice, but it didn’t surprise us at all.

As early as 10 months old, she was  plenty appreciative of cars at a local children’s play center. Contrary to all the “evidence” amassed in this BBC report that girls prefer dolls and boys prefer cars from a young age, our daughter has not clearly shown signs of any preference…except for toys that make loud noises when banged against random objects (the floor, her playpen walls, my head…).

If girls have an "intrinsic bias" against playing with cars...then what is she doing in this picture?

Speaking of toy preference, the study referred to in the BBC link above was presented at a conference in April; I’d love to get my hands on a printed report, published in an academic journal. Maybe the British Psychological Society will eventually print it. Until then, all I have is the BBC’s interpretation of “gender-typical toys.” Meaning that boys play with cars and girls play with dolls.

As a kid, I liked G.I. Joe, the Transformers, and Voltron. Basically, dolls for boys. Was I gender-atypical? I liked matchbox cars, too, especially when I could make them fly off a ramp and into a stack of alphabet blocks. Was I gender-typical? Were there days when I was more “typical” than others? Who gets to decide the definition of “gender-typical”?

In fairness to the study, the authors tried to point the finger at socialization pressure. I would interpret this to mean that parents of the children involved in the study were busily providing mostly dolls for their girl children and mostly cars for their boy children, based on their interpretation of what society expected of boys and girls. Of course, we’re not told in the BBC report what toys the parents provided on a daily basis.

So, we get stuck with the strange phrase “intrinsic bias.” How “intrinsic” is the desire to play with cars or dolls if the impetus is mommy or daddy giving you a car or doll with which to play?

I originally stumbled across the BBC page back in April and was meaning to post about toys at the time, but got slightly sidetracked by our daughter’s hospitalization. The whole gender issue is one that I haven’t really had time to consider (being more interested in things such as how to get my daughter to sit still while I change her diaper and how to get her to stop throwing random objects to the floor while eating). Obviously, it’s an important issue…but the mixed signs we receive and give our children are already confusing enough for parents, let alone children.

For example, take this blog entry on raising strong daughters. The blog itself is called “Parenting Pink.” Doesn’t sound too different from the stereotype to me. Or how about this sentence from their “6 tips” to guys like me: “Girls are verbal by choice and emotional by nature.” Does that imply the opposite for boys? Are boys uncommunicative by choice and unemotional by nature? Or maybe uncommunicative by nature and unemotional by choice…

The points made in the blog are well-meant, but I see no reason why they should be specifically about girls. Raising strong, healthy girls AND boys should mean equal treatment of both sexes. That also means insisting that girls AND boys can play with dolls and cars.

I suppose it says more about modern societies’ continued insistence that men and women can do different things and are “intrinsically” interested in different things. I can already feel my family getting pulled into the gender distinctions, now that summer has arrived and we have to choose what clothing to dress our daughter in. Whenever we choose pants instead of a dress, we get asked by other parents, “Boy or girl?”

The temptation to quote from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” is quite strong at such moments. Too bad I don’t know how to quote the appropriate scene in Japanese.

UPDATE December 23, 2010 – A recent study into primate behavior claims that young female chimpanzees often carry around a stick that seems to serve no functional purpose. So, does this support earlier contentions that there is a “biological” source of male/female preferences for toys? Or is it an imitation of the mothers? Or is it, “that stick-carrying is just a playful expression of cognitive abilities found in chimps and humans but few other animals.”

IMHO, sometimes a stick is just a stick.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
This entry was posted in baby toys, day care, family outings, roles and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Toy Boy?

  1. Maria Gianfrancisco says:

    I love the blogs you write. I meant to post this after you wrote the “Man with Kids” entry… but I think you would enjoy this book: “Half the Human Experience: The Psychology of Women” by Janet Shibley Hyde. It was used as a textbook for a psychology of women course in undergrad, and it cites studies (and critiques of or practical interpretations) that may interest you.

    Anyway, don’t be discouraged by others’ ignorance and lack of awareness on gender biases… continue to speak out and hopefully, they will learn something and follow your example.


    • Thanks for the praise (not sure if I’m setting a good example, but…) and thanks also for the book reference. I’ll check it out. I just wanted people to know that I fully support equal rights for men and women, but I don’t buy into the “girls are like X, boys are like X” simplification of humanity. I suppose saying so is more interesting for many. “People are people” is too un-divisive a claim, and “everyone is unique” is just too hard to prove 🙂


      • Maria says:

        Yes, it sounds like the Hyde book will be right up your alley. It’s an open discussion and exploration of the differences and similarities between male and female biological sex *and* female and male gender roles. There’s a great chapter on gender roles/rights/trends in the workforce, including a section on paternity leave.

        As a bit of a tangent, there’s also a chapter exploring research in the field of gender psychology… and a section that talks about how the research studies that tend to be published are the studies that show gender differences, and the studies demonstrating gender similarities are very rare. Interesting research bias, right…?


      • Gender is an obvious area to explore in psychology…at least partly b/c using a dichotomous variable in statistics is relatively easy to figure out. I have to admit, it also makes up the final research question in my own dissertation about speaking anxiety! However, it is not logical to assume that gender differences that manifest themselves in a particular social setting are necessarily the result of biological differences…particularly since “gender differences” are a social construction themselves. It’s more productive IMHO to ask the question of whether such differences are beneficial or detrimental, and whether we can change them or not. I’ve already encountered the opinion of “your role as a father is X.” I always wind up thinking, “WHY is my role as a father X? Why not Y?”


  2. Michael Apple says:

    I’m also annoyed by gender stereotypes. For instance, in the US, cats are seen as a feminine pet for some reason and guys are supposed to have dogs. Also, commercials always show boys playing football and girls playing soccer, as if a girl can’t play football and a boy can’t play soccer. It’s really obnoxious.

    It’s good that you aren’t allowing yourselves to fall prey to idiotic notions of “gender-specific toys” with your daughter.


    • I’m curious how she will eventually react to so-called “feminine language” in Japan. Japanese has many sentence-ending words (these are called “gobi,” which means “word tail”) to subtly indicate emotion and/or elicit emotional reactions from the listener. Women are traditionally supposed to use some words and men, others. The same goes for the words meaning “I” and “you.” Wonder which words she will use?


  3. Joshua Ledwell says:

    Thinking about stereotypical colors and toys, we didn’t find out the baby’s sex before birth, so gifts and such could be gender neutral. These days, CJ plays with trains and cars, but also will grab just about any small soft thing, cuddle it, and say “Baby, baby.”

    We also avoid Disney stuff as much as possible because it’s strongly stereotyped. But I’m far from perfect myself in the language I use to talk to CJ. It’s difficult to avoid gender bias!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s