Boys playing with 'girl's toys'


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When a friend's son asked her for a pink floral bike helmet, she lied and told him they didn't have the floral ones in his size. He went home with a plain blue one instead.

"I hate myself for doing it," she tells me. "But I worry that he'll get teased."

No doubt she was also trying to avoid invasive queries. She's regularly subjected to lectures from friends and strangers about the perils of "indulging" her son by painting his nails and buying him the doll he requested for Christmas. According to these parenting experts, she's going to "turn him gay".

By contrast, when I encourage my daughter to transgress her gender role and take part in stereotypically male activities, like going to soccer lessons or playing a doctor rather than a nurse in her imagination games, I get nods of approval.


In fact, it's now cool to get your daughter to play with trucks and balls rather than, say, a Dream Barbie® Rainbow-Shitting Pony. (Okay, so I made that bit up; everybody knows that Barbie's pony poos pink diamantes.)

In some cases there is an active push away from letting girls be "girly", but at other times it happens by default when we praise traditional male behaviours more than female ones.

But when it comes to breaking down gender stereotypes, we're on a strictly one-way street because, by contrast, feminine behaviour in boys is mostly discouraged. At best, it is tolerated.

We smile supportively at the mother who lets her son wear pink fairy wings to the library but secretly think she is courageous. Other mothers may not judge her, but they also don't actively encourage their sons to do the same.

Deviations from the script for raising boys are so unusual that when it does happen a social media sensation can ensue.

Remember when German father Nils Pickert wore a skirt in support of his dress-wearing son and the media went crazy with supporters and detractors? And when a mother let her son wear pink ballet flats to school? She got a write-up in TIME. magazine.

Just last week a father who bought his son a princess DVD was described as "awesome" and "Father of The Year". By contrast, buying my daughter a truck is so mainstream that not one person called me a hero for my efforts.

Even the re-purposing of girl toys into boy toys, such as Hasbro’s plans for a toy oven for boys, is sufficiently revolutionary to make news. (Scientists are still trying to figure out why boys can't use a "girl" oven.)

By only half-addressing the gender stereotype problem we further instil inequality between the sexes. Privileging tropes of masculinity sends a message to our children that "male" is both natural and superior; that it is more interesting, more fun, and will make us prouder if our girls become something that they never can be — a boy.

No, I'm not suggesting that we should try to empower pink. Nor am I advocating some vacuous Girl Power. But there is a subtle, yet important, difference in encouraging our girls to be strong girls rather than second-rate boys. Otherwise, we risk our girls internalising the belief that boys are better than girls and that therefore that they are not entitled to the same privileges that boys and men enjoy. It's hard to fight for equality of opportunity if deep down you don't think you're good enough to deserve it.

And it's no victory for boys, either, because it continues to constrain them within the same narrow, emotionally and creatively stunted models of masculinity.

Traditional masculine attributes have social and economic currency so it's a no-brainer to want our children to possess them. But similarly, traditional feminine qualities such as compassion, empathy, attention to detail and communication are worth celebrating, preserving and encouraging in children of both sexes.

It's time that equality became a two-way street to the extent that parents encouraging sons to adopt stereotypically feminine attributes and attitudes is considered too normal and dull to provoke headlines.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 30-Something and Over It and 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking.