More than Just Toys

By Shyama Parui

Dolls are to girls as __________ are to boys.
Toy trains / building blocks / harmonicas
What is the correct answer?

This may seem like a question from an analogy test that you took in school, but there is one key difference. I don't believe there is a correct answer. Picking one of these options or strictly associating dolls with girls does nothing but feed outdated stereotypes. Like most children, I didn't really think about the influence of toys on self- image or future career choices as a kid. My generation of children growing up in India, even in large metropolitan cities, had fewer toys or entertainment options available compared to the children of today. If I received a toy as a gift, I was overjoyed. As expected at that age, our playthings were hardly the subject of analysis. If I close my eyes, traveling deep into the farthest of memory lanes, I can pull up images of toy trains, kitchen sets, popup books, blonde dolls with pretty blue eyes, and Japanese dolls made of porcelain and dressed in kimonos, that were displayed beyond my arms reach. These were some of my cherished possessions and I recall spending many hours with them, firing up my imagination and passing time when my friends were not around. It was only as a parent that I became aware that gender role stereotyping could start as early as toddlerhood and I made a conscious decision to do everything in my power to avoid it. You can blame the “Information Age" for making every parental decision a mental debate involving fact checking, counter checking, reviews, ratings, etc. Trust me; at times it has been harder than trying to decide who would make the best Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 elections.

Instead of taking a militant approach and banning certain toys, my husband and I attempted to create a balance. One of the first things you learn as a parent is that you must humbly give up control. Nasty colds, diaper duties and unexplained crying can derail perfect plans. Similarly, you grudgingly accept the first Barbie doll that makes her way into your daughter's life and send a thank-you note to the gift giver. Given that Barbies have been the subject of much debate and discussion over the last couple of decades, they warranted equal amount of contemplation on the part of us parents. While, we didn't encourage exposure to the anorexic, unrealistic looking Barbie, we didn't shun or blame her for our kid's picky eating habits either. The only Barbie that I bought on a whim (yes, it was me) was the gorgeous one, dressed in a resplendent Indian bridal sari.

To counter the negative effects of gender role stereotyping we diligently picked out a variety of toys and activities that is often mistakenly considered “male". Our goal was to introduce building blocks and science kits with the same enthusiasm as kitchen sets and sewing templates. One afternoon, when we had displayed the kids' old toys at the neighborhood garage, a potential buyer browsing through the items remarked, “It looks like you have a boy and a girl". I could have hugged her. She had unknowingly graded me an A+ on my parental report card.

Keeping an open mind, both girls and boys need to be presented opportunities to play with toys in pink and blue. I may be stirring a hornet's nest here, but I will say it. We should not discourage boys from playing with toys that are considered more suitable for girls such as tiny frying pans and tea sets. Why not let a little boy take a baby doll around in a stroller. Wouldn't it be a good way to teach him to be gentle and caring toward a younger sibling? It doesn't seem fair that we celebrate the acceptance of women in male dominated careers as an accomplishment, but consider it embarrassing when a man pursues a career in a female dominated profession.

In a world where the lines dividing gender roles are blurring if not completely erased, women feel prepared to face challenges at the work place, but men are woefully behind in being the equal partner on the home front. It's not merely about sharing household chores, but about having skills that build strong relationships. Men and women will both benefit from being assertive, independent as well as being empathic and nurturing. Perhaps, you would consider that when you are buying a birthday or holiday gift or simply thinking of a way to spend a Sunday afternoon with your children.

Obviously, not everything depends on the choices we made as innocent, impressionable children. One of things I like to remind myself is that our outlook toward life, our decisions and attitudes are not developed in isolation. It is a combination of many factors, most of which cannot be controlled by us as individuals, parents, friends or members of society. Over time, we develop our own preferences that may or may not have been the direct result of our childhood experiences. For example, one of my daughters had a greater liking for dolls when she was younger, but she is also the one who loves creating working models for her science projects. My older daughter prefers books to chatter, and at the same time, she is perfectly capable of interacting with her littlest of friends, listening to them with patience and affection.

Although, in our developing years, playtime is for fun, entertainment and socializing with same age children, perhaps parents and care givers should also consider toys as tools for building important life skills. It won't be easy to make your selection, but don't we also spend hours on determining the best television to buy or read countless reviews before picking a restaurant?


Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: