Let toys be toys: The case for gender-neutral marketing

Published 10:38 AM EDT, Thu September 24, 2015

Story highlights

Target stores have removed references to "boys" and "girls" in aisles selling toys and other products

Researchers say gender-neutral marketing frees kids from limiting stereotypes

CNN —  

Remember when Target announced it was phasing out gender-based signs in some departments?

Despite some criticism, the big box retailer has been quick to act on its pledge.

Stores across the country have removed references to “boys” and “girls” in toy, home and entertainment aisles and traded in pink and blue shelves for a neutral, wood-grain look. Instead, toys are sorted by categories – dolls, action figures, building sets, etc. – while books and movies are sorted by genre and bedding is just… bedding. (For now, Target’s website is a different matter.)

Some derided Target for caving to overly sensitive, politically correct factions of the American public. Let girls be girls and boys be boys, they argued, and lamented that public bathrooms might be next.

Twitter/Abi Bechtel/WEWS

Those on the other side of the debate, who welcomed the shift as a positive step toward gender equality, have a different rallying cry: Let toys be toys already.

Like it or not, it’s happening, and – if decades of research are to be believed – that’s probably a good thing. Here’s what science has to say about making the toy aisle gender-neutral.

Boys and girls are not as different as we say they are

We’ve heard it all before: Girls are natural caregivers who are more nurturing than boys and that makes them more attracted to dolls. Boys are more likely than girls to prefer games, puzzles and learning toys because they are better at math and science.

Those tropes may not reflect biology as much as social expectations.

There’s no denying men and women are biologically different. When it comes to psychological traits and abilities, time and again, the evidence has suggested men and women, as well as boys and girls, are more alike than they are different.

Various studies in the past decades have assessed the impact of gender on traits that define our personalities: verbal and nonverbal communication, aggression, leadership, self-esteem, moral reasoning and motor behaviors. The most recent meta-analysis of those findings, published in 2005 in American Psychologist, found that 78% of the magnitude of gender differences were in the small or close-to-zero range.

A few common perceptions held, according to psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Compared with women, men could throw farther, were more physically aggressive, masturbated more and held more positive attitudes about sex in uncommitted relationships.

The studies also found these characteristics fluctuate with age, depending on environmental influences, challenging perceptions that gender differences are large and stable, Hyde wrote.

What does any of this have to do with toys? Nothing, really, which is basically the point. Parents and environment are more likely to influence which toy a child picks up, not gender.

It goes beyond play time to expectations for how children think, behave, even their aspirations.

“When we tell children dolls are for girls and trucks are for boys, we’re telling them not only are you a boy or a girl, but that being a boy or a girl is going to determine how you think and act and the skills you will develop,” said University of Kentucky psychology professor Christia Spears Brown, author of “Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Kids Free of Gender.”

Different toys benefit children in different ways

It’s a perception that makes psychologists and educators cringe: They’re just toys; they don’t influence my children.

Not so, according to decades of peer-reviewed scientific research of how toy play impacts childhood development. Dolls bring out nurturing skills and empathy; building blocks develop spatial skills; reading maps and hitting targets with balls increases cognitive skills.

It benefits children to experience all the things.

“Every time children play with toys, they’re getting something out of it. They’re learning something about the world,” said developmental psychologist Erica Weisgram of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“We need to be asking what are they learning; and, if they’re playing with different toys, is it OK to learn different things?”

Color and labels can matter, too. Weisgram co-authored a study published in 2014 that explored how labeling toys for girls and boys and using gender-typed colors impacts children’s toy preferences.

“Children can develop various skills more fully with a variety of toys and activities that can help them practice and hone these skills,” Weisg