Santa, don't pigeonhole my kid

Story highlights

  • Legos used to be known for gender-neutral toys that inspired children to create
  • Now the toys tell children in advance what's good for boys or girls
  • Even toys not targeting one gender still don't inspire children to imagine
  • Surround children with open-ended toys that will help them make whatever they want

(CNN)I am staring down a $71.97 box of Lego Friends at my local Walmart.

My daughter wants Santa to bring her one of these pretty pink and purple kits for Christmas.
These are the toys that Lego made to appeal to girls after decades of making toys they once marketed as being gender neutral.
    See the evidence in a 1974 Lego's note to parents who bought its toys, noting that parents should let their children create whatever they want without regard to gender or skill. "The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them," the note says.
    Lego's Friends toys were created to appeal to girls.
    Now Lego wants my daughter to play with Andrea, Emma, Mia, Olivia and Stephanie, characters Lego has already named and decided should go to hair salons, save animals and work at a café in Heartlake City.
    Boys, on the other hand, can go to a different aisle at the store I'm visiting to buy "Star Wars"-themed fighter jets, with their weapons designed to blow up everything.
    While I don't object to haircuts or animal rescue efforts or "Star Wars," I don't know why a toy designed to foster children's creativity -- explicitly not making pieces that predecide what my child should create -- now needs to decide everything for her.
    "Everything" includes what boys and girls should like. And so far, my daughter -- who loves all the colors of the rainbow but isn't a big fan of the color gray -- loves her Lego Friends.
    I worry what those purple and pink Legos are telling her.
    "Toys traditionally tell our children what we expect their roles to be as adults," says Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." "That's why girls had dolls and dustpans, and boys had erector sets."
    "I don't think any parent wants to limit their children now, and I think all of us know that our kids -- boys and girls -- need skills in both construction and caretaking to be successful adults," said Orenstein. "So during the holidays, I'd try to think creatively on a number of fronts: where gender is concerned broadening (your child's) concept of what it might mean to be female or male where and when you can."
    A classic study of young children's bedroom toys found boys had action toys, moveable toys, things children can use to act. By comparison, young girls' rooms were more likely to be filled with soft, frilly and cuddly toys.
    While some of those toys can be connected to children's preferences, there's no way to know whether children might like toys associated with the other gender if they never have them in their rooms.
    How to combat it? Parents can actively engage their children in play that defies traditional gender stereotypes, says Deborah Best, a Wake Forest University psychology professor who specializes in gender stereotypes among young children across cultures. Parents can also choose toys that encourage children's imagination, Best says.
    "One of the sad things about toys these days is they do everything for the kid," says Best. "Some of the things I loved were totally neutral: Taking cardboard boxes and drawing on them, making forts by spreading bed spreads across the chair, putting on shows (with my cousins)."
    That ability to think creatively, not just for a puppet show but complex challenges in adult life and work, is crucial.
    I am grateful that my child's school focuses on creativity and noncommercial play, and teachers actively discourage television viewing. Her teachers want to know what's in her imagination, not in the imagination of the adults at Disney, Nickelodeon or Mattel.
    Most of the toys in our house are raw material for her imaginative play: paint, clay, beeswax, yarn, felt, bits, crayons, bits of nature, lots of costumes that turn her into anyone she wants to be -- and Legos. And of course cooking and baking, the bike, the soccer ball and jump ropes.
    We are striking a balance, I hope.
    Lest the Disney fans think we are deprived, we let "Frozen" into our world. (I blame Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa, whose singing I adore.) My child didn't choose the sweeping gowns and odd makeup Anna or Elsa for Halloween. She wanted Olaf, which she got, and she gave us lots of warm hugs.
    Back to my original challenge: What is Santa to do?
    My daughter doesn't ask Santa for a lot: one big present, rarely more. I get her a few things from the real me, and other members of the family give her fun and thoughtful presents. She's not greedy, which makes me happier than I can say.
    So I turn to the best source on my child, the child herself.
    Why not the "Star Wars" Legos, segregated in with the other "boy" toys in the Walmart near our house? "They're all gray, and they just have guns. You can't build other fun stuff with them." That makes sense.
    When she received a smaller version of the Lego's Friends kit a couple months ago, she quickly built it according to the Legos directions to see that she could do it.
    "Now I'm going to break it apart and build what I want."
    She still wants to build what she wants, despite Legos' directions.
    Lego's mission, despite the current betrayal of the company's goals, is still in place in my daughter's brain. Their plans aren't enough for her imagination. She is reaching for more. And, yes, Santa will bring her a pretty pink and purple kit and some new female scientist Lego people to build and break apart.
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