Excerpts

'Redefining Girly': Reconstructing the gender norms of society

March 13, 2014 at 1:01 PM ET

Video: Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of "Redefining Girly," and family psychologist Jennifer Hartstein discuss gender stereotypes and how children are noticing body image and gender roles at earlier ages, leading to potential depression later in life.

In "Redefining Girly," Melissa Atkins Wardy delves into the highly talked about debate of gender norms in America and the importance of letting children have a choice in what types of toys they desire to play with. Here's an excerpt.

Redefining Girly
Melissa Atkins Wardy

Media greatly influences children, taking a role in shaping their perceptions and behaviors, and toys are a form of media. Just like the healthy foods we feed our children, toys, too, should be “nutrient rich,” allowing free play, creativity, and exploration in order to boost brain development and self-esteem through play. There should be no room in the toy box for gender stereotypes and sexualization.

If you were to ask parents, most would say they would do anything for their child. A follow-up question about whether children should be raised free of the limitations of gender stereotypes might not get such a universally affirmative answer. Or maybe the initial response would be positive, but an examination of the clothing and toys in the home might reveal there are different behaviors taking place. As parents, we have to ask ourselves, what lessons about gender are our children learning from their toys? The fact that I could have titled this chapter “You Can Have Anything You Want So Long As It Is Pink” might give us the answer.

It has been a challenge during the first six years of my daughter’s life to find toys for her that reinforce our family’s values. I have never seen an Amelia Earhart doll in a store, but I’ve seen entire rows of highly sexualized dolls, fashion and jewelry design kits, and the like in store after store. What do these teach girls about being female? And why are there so few affordable options to counterbalance those messages? Not only do mainstream stores tout stereotyped toys segregated by gender, the same holds true for television commercials and catalogs that come in the mail, especially around the holidays. Toys are not meant to teach children about gender. They are meant to teach children about life. For the first many years of childhood, I don’t see these lessons as needing to be different for boys and girls. As a culture, we are doing a very poor job of establishing a marketplace that reflects what we want our children to learn about being people. As it stands, we are teaching them that girls should focus on beauty and boys should focus on war.

Children are born ready to play, it is a skill that comes naturally to them and impacts their cognitive, social, and emotional health. Children have the ability to create entire worlds no one else can see. They can turn nothing into something. My five-year-old son currently turns his hands into people, jets, and animals, and will play with his hands acting as puppets for thirty minutes or more. Play has power.

We all hear parents say that children are growing up too quickly these days and wishing kids would just be allowed to be kids. They are right. Highly stereotyped and sexualized products and marketing rush our kids into looking and acting like mini-adults but at the same time kids are given very little autonomy to wander around the neighborhood and play or to develop responsibilities. This is a generation of helicopter parents and “prosti-tots,” and the two ideas together baffle me. We don’t think twice about filling an auditorium to cheer wildly as little girls in dance recitals give sexually charged performances dressed in burlesque fashion, yet we clutch our chests in panic at the thought of them walking to school or playing at the park by themselves. It seems we could be less hyper-vigilant about them falling from the play fort and more obsessed with protecting them from marketers’ schemes.

The good news is parents have the power to challenge and change these stereotypes and to teach their kids to do the same, to their kids’ benefit. My feeling is that play should be about choice. If a girl loves all toys pink and frilly, that is wonderful. If a boy loves trucks and pirate ships, that is superfantastic. But let’s allow our children to come to those choices on their own and not push colors or a gender-role agenda on them. Our homes should have toys and attitudes that allow boys and girls to play together so they can develop healthy attitudes toward one another. Pink is not the enemy, girly is not the enemy, but rather a lack of choice is the enemy.

Most young children of preschool age know three hard facts about themselves: their name, age, and whether they are a boy or girl. Because kids’ brains are so malleable at this age, this is a key time for teaching them there are many ways to be a girl, and many ways to be a boy. The cultural gap between boys and girls is troubling. As parents we need to find ways to close the gap by offering our children less gendered toys and more ideas for free play and outside play. Boys and girls need opportunities to play together, alongside one another, and in friendly competition.

Each child has their own toys that are special just to them, but that is based more on particular interests than gender. Raising both a boy and a girl, I see their fascination with various topics run all over the place. My daughter has been obsessed with whales and giant squid for a couple of years now, which was a nice change of pace from tarantulas, her obsession during her third year of life. My son loves to build houses out of wooden blocks that his plastic dinosaurs live in. A Baryonyx serves as the mother dinosaur that teaches the rest of the herd in school.

·We tried to keep character-branded items out of the house for a long as possible. These are usually clearly directed at one gender or the other.

·The toys and items we did purchase had to fit our “skittles rule”—they represented a rainbow of colors. This rule is superfun to apply while at IKEA.

·We focused on her development stages when buying toys. Her gender was never a factor in this. When she was learning to crawl, we got tennis balls and chunky toy cars that would encourage her to move around as she played. When she was learning to walk and stand, she had a toy kitchen, grill, play garden, and tool bench to encourage her to stand while playing and strengthen her leg muscles and improve her balance.

·We still limited what came in to our home but accepted we had less control over what she encountered outside of it. For example, I didn’t freak out when the school nurse would automatically reach for princess stickers instead of the dinosaur ones, or she if played with Barbies during a playdate.

·When we did go toy shopping we did so either online for specific items or by browsing at the independent learning toy store in town, not one of the big box shops.

·We held playdates at parks in nice weather or took seasonal trips to the apple orchard, zoo, or pumpkin patch. When we were at a playdate where we were the guest, Amelia was allowed to play with whatever belonged to the host child.

·Dress-up clothes allowed her to role play, so we had doctor, firefighter, chef, and scientist gear along with fancy dresses, tutus, and all kinds of pants, hats, and shirts in a variety of colors. We used hand-me-down flower girl dresses for princess dresses instead of the $50 options from the Disney Store.

·We went to the library one to two times per week and found books that mirrored her current interests.

·At this age she also loved dance parties, parades with her toy instruments, building with blocks, making blanket forts, putting on puppet shows, teaching her baby brother how to use toys, and exploring outside.

·She has great playdates with her pals and transitions well from playing princesses one minute to trying to catch catfish with their bare hands (or face) the next.

·Her playtime with pals now largely includes imaginary storylines they act out, usually with a great amount of noise. She also enjoys role play scenarios, like restaurant or science lab.

·Art projects are more popular than ever. During playdates I’ll help the kids with large-scale projects, like going crazy with a roll of butcher paper and finger paints outside on the patio. Early education blogs and Pinterest are great resources for project ideas. 

Excerpted from Redefining Girly, copyright (c) 2014 by Melissa Atkins Wardy. Used with permission by Chicago Review Press, all rights reserved. 

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