Boys and girls come out to play…

Children as young as 18 months prefer gender specific toys. Why is this?

Older children know what they want for Christmas, but choosing the right present for the very young can be tricky. Do you stick with the traditional choices – an action man for a boy and a doll for a girl – or do you challenge the stereotypes?

In recent years, campaigners have called for an end to the practice of gendering toys –particularly those aimed at girls. With that in mind, I suspect that the feminist lobby have been busy throwing in their tuppence-worth.

Although toy manufacturers and advertisers do tend to promote ‘gender-specific’ toys, questioning whether boys and girls really are attracted to certain specific toys is important to further our understanding of how gender norms develop. For example, do sex differences in toy preferences appear as soon as infants can demonstrate them, or do they develop with the acquisition of knowledge about their own sex and what adults and other children expect from them?

There is clear evidence that children over two years old typically prefer toys stereotyped to their own sex, but studies involving young babies have to rely on observing and interpreting their behaviour as they are shown toys in a laboratory setting.

Brenda Todd, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at CITY, University of London, decided to study how children react to gendered toys to discover which toys very young girls and boys actually wanted to play with – and why.

The study involved children between 9 and 32 months old, because this is the age at which children begin to move independently to demonstrate their interests. It is also the time they are going through the developmental stage of learning what it means to be a boy or a girl.

With their parent’s permission, the researchers decided to study children in multicultural London nurseries rather than in their homes or the laboratory. This was in order to negate the effect of parents, who might influence their behaviour.

Before choosing toys for the research, a survey was carried out asking local adults which toy came to mind when thinking of a young boy or a young girl.

The final choice included a digger, a car and a ball – traditionally boy’s toys – and a doll, a cooking pot and a pink teddy – traditionally girl’s toys. Previous research has shown that colour can also guide toy preferences, so the researchers added a blue teddy to see whether that would appeal more to the boys. This is an interesting move, as experience suggests that giving boys a choice between a digger and a teddy (of whatever hue) the digger will win hands down most of the time.

Tin each experiment, all the toys were arranged in a semi-circle, one metre away from each child, so that they needed to move independently to make their selection, and the number of times each child played with each toy was noted.

Results from the 47 girls and 54 boys taking part in the study showed a highly significant preference for toys typed to the child’s gender. When the results were broken down into narrower age groups, chosen to reflect their stage of gender knowledge development, the results were the same.

Among the youngest children – aged nine to 12 months – all the boys spent some time playing with the ball, and playing with the ball accounted for half of the total time boys played with the toys. In contrast, the youngest girls played with the cooking pot for a similar proportion of the time. There was little interest in the teddies from either boys or girls.

Finding differences in the toy preferences of boys and girls aged less than 18 months suggests these differences and preferences exist before extensive socialisation, although such predisposition may change as children label themselves as boys or girls and learn more about social norms.

The research also found that while boy’s preferences for male-oriented toys increase as they get older, it was the youngest group that showed the strongest preference. In addition, both boys and girls increasingly preferred ‘boy toys’ as they approached their third birthday.

This raises questions about gender assumptions of what a boy’s toy or a girl’s toy actually is. However, girls frequently show more interest in boy’s toys as they get older. This could simply be a matter of natural curiosity as girls begin to realise that boys and girls are different.

It may also be possible that stereotypes for boys are more rigid than for girls. This is something that accurately mirrors what happens in real life, as any parent will know. As in modern society, girl’s play with ‘male-gendered’ toys is often encouraged more than boy’s play with toys that are associated with care giving.

Of course, some of the boys and girls in the study didn’t stick to typical boy/girl preferences at all, so it’s probably best to keep the individual child in mind when choosing their birthday present.

All grown up…

As the debate over nature versus nurture rages on and men and women continue to behave in different ways, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that it may be environment and culture rather than genetic inheritance that influences behavioural traits from generation to generation.

An international research team, led by Professor John Dupré at the University of Exeter, examined recent studies on evolution, as well as research on the correlation between gender and the brain. For instance, human brains are made up of unique mosaics of features, some of which are more common in males than females.

There are arguments to the effect that there is greater aggressiveness and promiscuity among males, or that females harbour a greater preference for domestic or child-rearing work, or that greater success in some professions is the result of our genetic inheritance.

But the team’s findings suggest that it is just as likely that sufficient environmental and cultural change will produce modifications in behaviour in both men and women. It may be that traditionally held ideas about evolved masculine and feminine behaviours being determined by genes are wrong.

True, genetic inheritance is a critical factor in the capacity to learn an adaptive behaviour quickly, but non-genetic mechanisms may be equally, or even more important. Human culture strongly encourages us to have male and female roles and our highly developed capacity to learn allows this information to be passed onto the next generation.

In non-human mammals, adaptive traits that have reliably developed in offspring for thousands of years can disappear within a few generations if the relevant environmental conditions change. But environmental factors that remain stable over generations remove any selective pressure for the development of parallel genetic mechanisms. So gender-specific traits could also be explained by long-term stability in the social environment.

Human environment and culture do influence behavioural traits from generation to generation, such as universal suffrage in the West and subjugation of women in the East. Environmental factors supply the stable conditions needed for the reproduction of the trait in each generation. A world war created the need for the creation of a ‘women’s land army’ and women working in factories. More recently, greater freedoms in Western society have led to greater promiscuity in both sexes and an increase in aggression in some females. The Internet and the smartphone have changed the way we live, the way we view ourselves and the way we behave toward each other.

As if proof positive were needed, we only have to look at the dramatic way a rapidly evolving socio-economic environment and culture has changed the world in the last century to understand that both men’s and women’s roles are in the process of changing markedly. The outcome of this latest and profound evolution, though uncertain, proves the point.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.