I was at a birthday party recently, chatting with parents while keeping an eye on the pack of preschoolers who had just finished "helping" the birthday girl open her presents. The baby brother of one of the party guests was toddling around, examining the toys and the discarded wrappings.
At one point, he picked up a well-worn baby doll, sat down on his diapered bottom, and began looking it over. And suddenly I heard, "Uh oh. Daddy will be angry if he sees you playing with that!"
I looked over at my own little boy, age 3, who was standing at the toy kitchen, happily making pretend tea for everyone, being careful to put tiny pink cups in front of the stuffed animals he had arranged on the floor. He does this at home, too; ask him what he's up to, and he'll say he's feeding his kids. Which pleases me, because how else can he learn how to be a good dad if he doesn't practice?
The division between "girl stuff" and "boy stuff" has always seemed arbitrary to me. Why is it that so many things that are traditionally considered "woman's work" in the home (like cooking, sewing, or child care) are seen as a respectable career choice for men as long as the job has a title and is done for pay (like being a chef, a clothing designer, or a professor)?
Even though numerous studies have shown that homosexuality may be a question of nature, not nurture, gender sterotyping starts early, and little boys are steered toward blue and guns and trucks while little girls get the frilly pink things and the play kitchens and the dolls.
But in 1921, groups like The Women's Institute Domestic Science in Pennsylvania were endorsing pink as the go-to color for little boys. And up until the 1940s or so, in Westernized countries, pink was considered a masculine color, since it' derived from active, agressive red; little girls were the ones who were supposed to wear light blue, which was associated with purity, passivity, and the Virgin Mary. Take a look at the early Disney princesses, for example: Sleeping Beauty showed off a pretty pink ball gown when she woke up in 1959, but Cinderella, who debuted in 1950, is decked out in delicate sky blue.
So the whole "you can't play with that, that's a girl toy" issue seems silly to me. I'd much rather have my little guy gravitate toward the things that interest him than steer him toward only things that are typically considered to be for boys. Same goes for my 5-year-old daughter, whose best friend is a boy, and who happily races Hot Wheels cars while wearing princess gowns and loves stuffed animals but thinks dolls are "kinda creepy."
Parents, do your children have gender-specific toys? Why or why not?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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