Growing up, did you play with girls’ toys or boys’ toys?
Lisa Dinella, a psychologist at Monmouth University, is studying the nature of gendered toys.
Lisa M. Dinella is an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University in New Jersey. She studies how toys and the media impact children’s gender identities. Dr. Dinella’s interest in psychology and gender studies started as an undergraduate at The College of New Jersey. Her training in conducting school-based empirical research began at the School of Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, where she received her master’s and doctoral degrees in Family Science, with concentrations in Marriage and Family Therapy and Child Development. Additionally, she was an American Psychological Association/Institute of Education Sciences Postdoctoral Education Research Training Fellow. Dr. Dinella currently serves as Principal Investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory.
Toys teach children about the world around them. Dolls may teach children lessons about caretaking, and kids practice sharing during imaginary tea parties. When children are stacking blocks into the tallest of towers, they are actually learning the basics in math.
As a gender researcher, I am interested in why girls often choose to play with different toys than boys, and vice versa. When children only play with half of the toys out there, they only get to learn half of the lessons that toys have to offer (and they only get to have half the fun!). Do children naturally like certain toys, or is this something they learn?
Toy companies market toys to girls and boys by making them pink or blue. Girls and boys don’t naturally like pink or blue—it is only since the 1940’s that blue started meaning boy and pink meant girl. My colleagues and I wanted to know whether this marketing strategy teaches children which toys to like.
We gave kids a pink tea set and a blue tea set, a pink truck and a blue truck, and many more. Then they told us how much they liked each one. Of course girls told us that they liked the pink girl toys the most, and boys liked blue boy toys the most. We were surprised to find that girls also liked the boy toys—but only if they were pink! Pink gave girls permission to play with all toys.
Unfortunately, painting toys blue did not help boys like dolls and such. It may be boys are teased more for playing with toys girls usually choose, regardless of color. There is more pressure for boys to follow the rules, whereas girls have a bit more flexibility.
The rules we create about what girls and boys “should” like are very powerful.
The so-called rules for toys are merely a social construct, but their strength and pervasiveness is on display in nearly every home.