As I babysat for a three-year old boy last night, I admired the way he played so carefree. I reflected on how playing is a child’s only real duty – with the exception of eating and sleeping. When I asked him what he did at school that day, he answered “played”, with the sort of tone that said “duh, what else?” I watched him run from one end of the house to the other sliding across the wooden floors and laughing. I watched him throw his plush football around, careless of where it landed, eager to pick it back up and toss it again. I watched him put together his train tracks and watch with slight boredom as his Thomas train slowly went around the tracks.
All of this amazed me as he bounced from toy to toy, excited to show me all the cool things that filled his playroom. But what I loved most about his large, toy-filled playroom was that some traditionally “girl” toys were present as well. He had a play kitchen set up complete with a play stove and oven; a large plastic doll house that featured miniature furniture and small dolls and a Barbie jeep truck, similar to the one I used to play with. All of these “girly” toys to the critical eye would seem out of place next to his Tonka trucks and plastic tool sets. Yet, I appreciated this mixture of “girl” and “boy” toys his mother provided for him.
We are conditioned to believe that girls play with pretty, pink dolls and house sets. They don’t want footballs and trucks. And boys are supposed to play with plastic tools and cars. It seems such an obvious statement to make, however, it’s important for us as consumers to step back and ask why we accept these norms? This strict distinction between what constitutes a girl toy and a boy toy leaves little room for “outliers”. By outliers I mean boys who enjoy playing house and girls who like to play with cars, etc. They are told these are not appropriate for them to like, so something is wrong with them.
Children’s toys are so highly genderized, yet we often accept these standards companies and in a larger sense, society set. Little girls are expected to be thrilled by play house sets, putting on aprons and having pretend tea parties. To me, these activities reflect the gender roles we associate with the 1950s where a woman’s place was in the home. But, what about boys who like to pretend to make cakes and sip fake coffee from teacups? As a society we see this behavior and assume he must be gay. If he isn’t interested in “normal” boy toys and activities, there is cause for concern. I feel this standard is held more for young boys than girls, although I’m not sure why it is this way.
This issue reminds me of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm when Larry David notices his friend’s son loves to watch Project Runway and play with “girl” toys. So, Larry decides a sewing machine is a good gift for the young boy. But, his mother is appalled and wonders what’s wrong with Larry. She asks what he is assuming about her son. Larry responds, “the boy loves it!” – which he did. Prompted by the mother, Larry exchanges the sewing machine for a violin, apparently a more appropriate gift according to the mother.
In saying all this, I mean to give praise to the mother I babysat for last night. By not denying her son the toys he wants to play with, she is sending him the message that it is okay to be who he is. Rather than laughing in the toy aisle when he asked for a kitchen set, she fulfilled his request. If we are able to realize and overcome the heteronormative standards society sets for children, I believe kids will grow up more open-minded and accepting. People always claim that children are the future and so on and so forth, but parents are able to play a large role in how those kids turn out. So, it is our role as adults to encourage individuality and excuse acts we are supposed to consider “irregular”.