When I was pregnant, we didn’t find out if we were expecting a boy or a girl. We went for a gender-neutral nursery theme (lots of trees, bunnies, bears and wood grain), and the newborn clothes we amassed pre-baby were a muted rainbow of white, yellow, grey, mint-green and purple. (With lots of chevrons. So much chevron.) We asked for books, and not toys, at our co-ed baby shower, and ended up with a relatively progressive, sexless library of Sophie the Giraffe, hippo-related Sandra Boynton titles, and many, many books about either fruit or farm animals. Prior to becoming a parent, I eyed the expensive designer wooden toys that promise all-organic, enlightened educational fun for your liberated, un-gendered child—certainly nothing having to do with princesses or Paw Patrol.
Our son Cal, now almost 20 months old, had other ideas. Right now he’s going through a major trucks, trains and tractor phase (before that it was all balls—any kind—all the time). He also likes pretending things are screwdrivers and going around to all his toys and furniture, announcing he’s going to “fix it.” He does have a baby doll he likes to “wash” (er, drown) in the bathtub, and a play kitchen where he can spend a solid 20 minutes preparing a meal or flinging all the plastic food onto the floor with glee. But he spends a lot more time shooting balls around the kitchen with a mini hockey stick his dad made for him before he even learned to walk.
A new study in the journal of Infant and Child Development says that this preference for gendered toys might not be because he’s watched too much Bob the Builder on Netflix or because everyone likes to remark on what a little “dude” he is. The study found that even babies as young as nine months gravitate toward stereotypically gendered toys. (The youngest baby girls in the study played with cooking pots and the boy babies were more likely to choose a ball.) In the study, these gender preferences appeared earlier than previous research has shown, which, some argue, could mean that nature—and not nurture—is a more powerful determinant than we thought.
Researchers at City University in London observed 101 children between the ages of nine months and 32 months as they played in a nursery, without their parents present.
The nursery was stocked with a doll, a pink teddy bear, a blue teddy bear, a pot, a digger and a ball, and the observers recorded which child played with which toy, and for how long.
“Historically, there has been uncertainty about the origins of boys' and girls' preferences for toys typed to their own sex and the developmental processes that underlie this behaviour,” says Brenda Todd, one of the study authors and a senior psychology lecturer at City University London. “We set out to find out whether a preference occurs and at what age it develops.”
Todd says that, in general, boys played with male-typed toys more than female-typed toys, and girls played with female-typed toys more than male-typed toys.
“Biological differences give boys an aptitude for mental rotation and more interest and ability in spatial processing, while girls are more interested in looking at faces and better at fine motor skills and manipulating objects. When we studied toy preference, the differences we saw were consistent with these aptitudes,” she says. (Interestingly, the older toddler girls in the study also preferred the “male” toys over the “female” toys.)
The researchers made sure that parents weren’t present during the play sessions and couldn’t direct their child toward a specific toy, but the study has no way of knowing which kinds of toys the children already had access to (and familiarity with) at home, or what a sibling has exposed them to. Personally, I think it’s quite likely that the boy babies already had books about construction sites and cars at home, had been gifted plenty of balls, dump trucks, and other gendered toys, and may even have been dressed in sports-themed outfits since birth. (“Mommy’s Little MVP”—ugh.) It’s all about picking up cues from the environment around them.
The study authors also speculate that perhaps infants know implicitly whether they are boys or girls from a very young age (even before nine months), but they don’t have the communication skills to tell us that—or to crawl or walk toward a toy typically assigned to their gender.
Does Cal like hockey because boys are simply more active and have that early spatial processing ability? Or is it because we’ve always had hockey sticks and balls lying around the house for him to grab? Realistically, it’s probably a mix of both. I hope that if we ever have a daughter, she’ll be gifted her own mini hockey stick just as automatically, and that we’ll read her “Goodnight, Construction Site,” at bedtime, too.
What do you think? Did your kid seem wired to prefer gendered toys from a young age, or do you think they picked it up from their surroundings?
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