Fingers raw from painstakingly screwing together what seemed like several hundred pieces of wood, I was pretty impressed with myself one weekend this summer when I finished building a toy kitchen for my four-year-old son. That joy was nothing, though, next to the thrill of watching it became his favourite toy.
Gone were the train engines and red buses. In came the tiny metal cups and saucers, delicate spoons, plastic fruit, and pretend boxes of milk and rice. Although the first rush of novelty has worn off, he still loves creating pretend dishes with his friends, before bringing them for me to taste (which I do, with plenty of pretend gusto).
I like to think of this little kitchen as one of my biggest parenting victories. At home, for logistical reasons, I tend to do most of the cooking on the weekdays. So I’ve always been concerned that my son might grow up thinking of this as a ‘woman’s job’ (although perhaps it should be noted that I also do all the DIY).
“We forget that gender equality must cut both ways, by freeing our sons as well as our daughters from narrow expectations.”
Tackling gender stereotypes in childhood is tough. Toys these days appear to be even more gendered than they were when I was young. There are now separate blue and pink aisles in my local toy store. Princesses and fairies in one, vehicles and water pistols in the other.
The challenge for me and my husband as parents has been to try not to restrict our son’s expectations of what he can and can’t do. Research has shown that toys have a profound impact on childhood development, not only in developing cognitive skills, but also in shaping our understanding of what’s culturally appropriate.
It has been interesting to observe my son develop an obsession with trains and cars, we also notice that he adores the colour pink. Then just the other day, he built a castle out of sofa cushions and told me in no uncertain terms that – being a girl – I wasn’t allowed in. He learned that from a cartoon. And the one doll I bought him came straight out of the box and immediately gathered dust in the corner of his room. He doesn’t even look at it.
“As humans, we prefer the familiar. By the age of two, it would be unusual for a boy who has never seen a doll to suddenly choose to pick one up.”
Research by University of Cambridge psychologist Melissa Hines has suggested there may well be a statistically significant difference in play behaviour among children as young as two, impacted by testosterone levels. Boys prefer trucks and girls prefer dolls. This is only an average, though, with a huge degree of overlap. We must also remember how few baby boys are actually ever given dolls to play with. As humans, we prefer the familiar. By the age of two, it would be unusual for a boy who has never seen a doll to suddenly choose to pick one up.
While as a result of campaigning, girls are enjoying a wider spectrum of toys, our boys still suffer the stigma of playing with traditionally girls’ toys. There is no shame in a boy carrying a doll, yet nobody besides me has ever gifted my son one. And to my embarrassment, I waited an entire four years. Nobody has ever given him anything pink to wear, either. We forget that gender equality must cut both ways, by freeing our sons as well as our daughters from narrow expectations.
In the meantime, I take my victories where I can. I’m proud of the kitchen I built him. Now, son, pass me that plastic sandwich.