When kids play across gender lines

Story highlights

  • Parents praise Harrods for "Toy Kingdom" in which toys are arranged by theme, not gender
  • "Bullied" author says "color-coded" toys foster animosity toward kids who are different
  • Carrie Goldman, mother of "Star Wars Katie," wrote book after outpouring of support
  • Boys more likely to get picked on for defying gender norms than girls, expert says
Like many parents, Carrie Goldman was thrilled to learn that Britain's biggest department store recently reopened its toy department with a fresh look: dolls and trucks side by side.
Instead of organizing toys into color-coded aisles of pink for girls and blue for boys, Harrods' new 26,000 square-foot "Toy Kingdom" is broken into six interactive "worlds." Looking for costumes, a rocking horse or stuffed elephants? Try the Big Top, which Harrods describes as "a fairground of circus acts and candy floss, with magicians and jugglers on stage." In the Odyssey, "a gigantic space rocket crashes through the floor and a huge sun bursts through the wall in front of an Area 51-inspired space and gadget zone, complete with alien space pods and limited-edition pieces."
For Goldman, a mother of three in suburban Chicago, it's a step in the right direction toward breaking down the gender divide erected at an early age through playtime. She experienced firsthand how those barriers can hurt children and make them feel like they need to change who they are to gain acceptance on the playground.
Two years ago, Goldman's 7-year-old daughter came home in tears after classmates teased her for carrying a "Star Wars" thermos to school, saying "Stars Wars" was for boys. Goldman shared the story on her blog, Portrait of An Adoption, and within a matter of days, the tale of "Star Wars Katie" went viral, drawing support from around the world.
Her plight didn't just strike a nerve with parents and children -- George Lucas' daughter, also named Katie, and the actor who played Chewbacca also had words of wisdom for Katie based on their experiences getting bullied for somehow being different.
The sheer volume of responses compelled Goldman to delve into why so many people could relate to Katie's story. That research culminated in her first book, "Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear," released this month. In it, she explores the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which society fosters a fear of those perceived as different and what parents can do about it.
The negative effects of enforcing gender norms emerged as a prominent theme, including the way girls are often nudged in the direction of princess fantasies and dolls while building blocks and train sets are traditionally boys' toys. It's part of the reason why Goldman saw the move by a large retailer such as Harrods as promising. Removing gender-specific connotations from packaging or displays sends the message to children that they're open to everyone, she said.
When stores separate toys into aisles for girls and boys, however, they learn that anyone who deviates from their designated shelves deserves to be ridiculed.
"We can't truly address bullying without talking about the fear of people perceived as different," Goldman said. "If you have a 6-to 8-year-old boy who goes into Harrods and sees 'Star Wars' toys next to other dolls and action figures, maybe it'll make him think differently when he sees a girl with a 'Star Wars' thermos. We could be preventing future bullies by teaching them to be open-minded now."
In the chapter "Calling on Toy Retailers to Eliminate Gender-Based Marketing," Goldman posits that the reason stores segregate by gender is so they can sell more of the same product. If a store carries soccer balls in pink and blue, a mother shopping for her son and daughter can buy one for each. In addition to reinforcing gender stereotypes, the brother and sister no longer need to share, "eliminating an opportunity to develop their social skills," Goldman says in the book.
With children returning to school, Goldman's book lands at a time when bullying is front and center in parents' minds. It also comes in an era when the connection between gender norms and bullying is getting increased scrutiny from parents, educators and activists, prompting more direct action instead of just talk. When Lego announced plans to sell a new line of sets packaged in pink boxes and containing busty characters, salons and spas, girl-led activist movement SPARK launched a petition to quash the toys.
Restricting train sets to boys and dress-up to girls not only reinforces outdated gender roles but also stifles creativity, said psychology professor Deborah Tolman of the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York and co-founder of SPARK.
"Kids get a lot of ideas early from play about what they can do, what they like and what they can aspire to," Tolman said. "By making those themes gender specific, it leaves out a whole range of possibilities."
Efforts at gender neutral play are not about eradicating the sight of pink or blue from toy stores or necessarily pushing children away from toys traditionally associated with their gender, she said. It's simply a matter of making them feel like all options are open.
"It's about making all these ways of playing part of the human experience. Anxiety a