Many parents complain about sexism in toys and clothes aimed at little girls. It is also quite common to see parents encouraging their daughter to play with toys traditionally associated with boys (for different reasons: feminism, tired of pink, big brother’s toys …). Conversely, letting a boy play with dolls, girl’s clothes or wear pink is much less easily accepted in our society.
“Don’t play with this : Barbies and dolls are for girls”
Why ? to put it simply, let’s say that men and careers / items / values traditionally associated with men are more valued in Western societies than women and values / behaviors /items associated with women. In practice, the masculine prevails over the feminine …
Thus, when a girl refuses pink, Barbies and dresses, her tastes are more or less respected, even if we stick on her a nice “tomboy” label, a word that I do not really like … However, parents are in general more or less satisfied to have a “tomboy”, some even speak about her with a form of pride: “At least she will not become cheesy! She’ll be a badass girl!”
Conversely, in a home where lives a boy who loves dolls, you may often hear : “Do not play with that, Barbies and dolls are for girls.” Yes, as everybody knows, if a boy plays like a girl, he may become a girl. And, well, being a girls sucks! QED.
Toy manufacturers get it right and market dolls as being exclusively girls’ toys. We had to wait until 2015 to see a little boy in a commercial for Barbie … the first time in 56 years!
Playing dolls strengthens emotional and social skills
Toys are not just toys. Play is the work of the children. Through play, children develop certain skills, like empathy for example. Any parent here who wouldn’t want his child become an empathetic adult? [Reminder: someone who is unable to empathize is a psychopath …] Or is there anybody to deny that literacy is key for both girls and boys?
Well, bingo! playing with dolls, dressing / undressing them, make them talk, strengthen fine motor, verbal and preliteracy skills. This type of play is also encourages children to be caring and empathetic. Unsurprisingly studies show that girls in kindergarten are better than boys in terms of language skills and ability to recognize the emotions of others. And the more they play with dolls, the more they increase their lead over boys.
As Lise Eliot* says:”Doll play and pretend parenting reinforce social-emotional skills: caring for other people, considering and accommodating their needs, and appreciating what they may be feeling. In short, this kind of play fosters the development of empathy. Playing house or family also involves lots of verbal and communication practice, even if the child is playing by him- or herself . (Most children – boys and girls – do talk to themselves, especially between four and six years of age, an audible “private speech” that helps guide their behavior during new or challenging tasks.)“(1)
Verbalization and self-control
Empathy, verbal skills … but there is more than that! As mentioned above, Lise Eliot notes that when children invent stories with dolls or action figures they talk to themselves. Well, the ability to verbalize is directly related to the development of self-control, an area where most boys encounter more difficulties than girls.
Just enter in a kindergarten classroom: for most boys remaining seated, listening quietly to the teacher, waiting their turn before speaking, is difficult, whereas girls seem to adjust themselves more easily to those requirements.
Neuro-psychologists call this inhibition: the ability to suppress behavior, for example to stop speaking, to stop moving, to remain focused on your work and not get distracted … Studies show that boys are slower than girls when it comes to developing those skills. According to a large study (available here for the bravest ones) screening various temperamental traits from children aged 3 to 13 years old, the girls’ advantage in terms of inhibitory control is the most important sex difference among all the behavioral traits tested. “So it is this difference – in their ability to sit still, tune out conflicting impulses, and focus on completing their work – much more than cognitive sex difference that makes boys’ adjustment to school more challenging than girls’. ” ( 2)
And what is the link with dolls? Verbal skills. The more a child can verbalize, the more he/she controls language, the more he/she knows how to manage his/her impulses. Some of you may already have seen children talk to themselves and say “No, don’t hit, it’s not nice,” as a way to remind themselves of the rules. My son does this very often when he misbehaved, and is once again facing the same situation, he tells me the rule. Lately, almost every morning he says “And we do not fight about who has the most grilled toast.”
To make it short, to follow rules, to tune out impulses, verbalization is important. Experiments show that 5 year-old children who are taught to talk to themselves can improve their concentration and self-control. So of course, language skills are not acquired only with dolls. All games where kids have to tell stories, to put themselves in the shoes of someone else are beneficial. For boys in particular, whose verbal skills, ability to recognize emotions in others and inhibition are on average less developed than girls.
The male/female differences: more nurture than nature
One-year-old boys are equally attracted to dolls than girls, in the same way that babies instinctively prefer looking at faces rather than any other object. And then, what’s happening? Elise Eliot gives us some answers: “For although innate factors clearly slant boys and girls toward different types of toys, there is also plenty of evidence that such choices are further amplified by parents, peers and especially, their own emerging awareness of actually being a boy or a girl. “(3) (on this point see our post on the construction of gender identity)
Thus the tendency to avoid the opposite sex toys is much more pronounced in boys than in girls, in the same way that adults generally react more negatively to a boy playing with girls’ toys than when they seen a girl playing with boys’ toys. We’re now back to the values and representations of our society: girls have the right to behave “like boys”, but boys do not get this kind of message (because remember, being a girl sucks .. . see the beginning of this article).
To go back to verbal, social and emotional skills: part of the girls’ advantage is probably innate (we promise we will soon publish a post to explain it all), but this advantage is actually rather low at the beginning, it increases as kids get older because girls practice more than boys. We are facing here the same mechanism as for boys’spacial skills which we mentioned about construction toys.
Again, this is the whole problem of the segregation between so called girls and boys toys: each type of toy can develop certain skills and ability of the brain. Limiting children’s choices also limits opportunities for the brain to practice certain tasks and ultimately contributes to the reproduction of gender inequality! You can find dozens of studies that show that women are more endowed than men to care for others, understand their emotions and communicate. But the conclusion to be drawn from these studies is not that women are naturally made for certain types of activities. They rather show that women’s brain was more trained to perform certain tasks: observable differences in adulthood, much larger than those observed in childhood, are not innate but essentially acquired from early childhood.
So let’s buy dolls for both girls and boys, not because we want prepare them for parenthood (nothing can really help you to be prepared for that!) But just because it’s good for their brain!
Note: For this article I relied heavily on the book by Lise Eliot (2010). Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps And What We Can Do About It. Mariner Books. All quotations are from this book in which she exposes and discusses the results of more than a thousand studies on the brain and male and female behaviors.
(1) p. 130
(2) p. 149
(3) p. 109
Stereotips is a blog created and managed by 2 French mums who want to share their ideas beyond the French-speaking community. This post is a “home-made” translation from French. So if you see any typo or mistake, feel free to contact us! Thanks!