playtime politics

'My son loves dress-up and dolls' houses - but why do I feel compelled to tell you that he plays with trucks too?'

It’s time to start thinking beyond pink and blue, writes Chrissie Russell.

I WAS A ‘TOMBOY’ child. My cousins, close to me in age, were all boys, so too were all my parents’ friends’ children and I played boisterously and muddily, kicking footballs and making dens.

I was happiest in jeans and rugby tops, wasn’t fussed on pink and while Santa was busy delivering pretty dolls to my school chums he knew to leave an A-Team truck at our house. I tell all this with a sense of pride.

Sometimes my four-year-old son likes to play that he’s a pirate and dress up with my jewellery, and when he was younger he loved toy kitchens and dolls’ houses.

He’s partial to episodes of My Little Pony and Butterbean Cafe. And yet, I can feel myself rushing to follow up all this information with the fact that he also LOVES trucks, trains and swords – the usual ‘boy’ things.

As if it’s okay for him to adore Lego, sport and blue… but not baking. That he shouldn’t think fairies are just as cool as dragons.

Parenting in pink and blue

I know friends who have had stand-up fights with their partners over a son’s desire to own a toy kitchen (one that one pal resolved by making her other half name all the TV chefs he could think of – and then pointing out they were all male).

A close friend recently told me how torn she felt when her son picked a pink t-shirt when given free rein to chose on a shopping expedition.

“I can’t deny the fact that I felt a degree of panic as I wondered what would happen if he wore it to school,” she recalled. “It’s one thing to be in the safety of your own home and with your close friends and family and quite another to be in an environment where not everyone is your friend and the old stereotypes prevail.”

But she admits that when her daughter picked out a Star Wars shirt, she didn’t have any of the same moral debates in her head.

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Gender stereotypes start young

A lot of the time kids seem to conform to gender stereotypes of their own bat – though it’s hard to tell how much of this is nature and how much nurture – with girls wanting to play princesses and the lads making a beeline for cars and trucks.

That’s not always the case, of course, and you’ll often see the opposite happening too. I just wish that non-conformity could be equally celebrated for both genders. Why is society okay with girls embracing their tomboy side but not *quite* so on board with boys who want to wear pink?

“My opinion is that it’s not ‘one-sided’ but rather ‘sexist’,” says psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O’Reilly 

My sense is that, because as a society the male voice is valued more, masculinity is seen as strong, confident and worthy while femininity is associated with weakness or prettiness. Women are, in so many ways, valued less.

It’s scary how early this gendered thinking kicks in… and the impact it has. It recently materialised that a little girl in my son’s class had told him “ponies are just for girls”, something she said quite innocently but that left him troubled and a little upset.  

“The biggest impact is shaming,” says Sally, who believes that even at pre-school level, these inbuilt societal beliefs could feed into the mindset of toxic masculinity:

This kind of approach teaches that boy that things associated with female are weak, shameful and bad and that only girls – who are then by logical definition ‘less than’ – should do these things. It teaches them that it is shameful to be creative or kind or to like clothes or whatever the case might be.

She adds: “The sensible reaction is to treat it [choosing gendered toys] as you’d treat all other play. Let toys be toys and enjoy your child’s imagination.”

With more conversations taking place about gender and equality on a broader scale, attitudes are hopefully changing and becoming less black and white, more inclusive. But perhaps if we could start seeing all toys for everyone, it wouldn’t be such a leap to seeing all opportunities as open to all.

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More: How I threw a birthday party with 15 kids on a shoestring budget – from the invites to the goody bags>

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