Boys playing with 'girl's toys'

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Photo: Getty Images

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.

www.kaseyedwards.com

9 comments

  • Wouldn't it be great if it was the 'norm'?
    I and quite a few of the mothers of boys i know had pink prams, toy kitchens and bought pink tutus,bling jewellery, Dora, Angelina Ballerina and Tinkerbell toys and DVD's. I never felt "brave" just conscious that I was allowing my son to express his imagination.
    The only person to make a negative comment was my old-fashioned Dad, who has some ridiculous views. He was promptly warned to keep those views to himself!
    I have a great picture of my then 4yo son on his way out to Xmas lunch with his Thomas the Tank bike and matching helmet wearing a pink ballerina leotard-tutu on top of his regular clothes! The wait staff were never quite sure whether he was a boy or girl? :-).

    Commenter
    NatD
    Location
    St Kilda
    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 10:09AM
    • As much as attitudes have changed in the last decade, I'm sorry, but there isn't a father out there who doesn't breathe a little sigh of relief the first time they catch their son looking at photos of girls.

      Commenter
      Jason
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 12:43PM
      • Why? Because having a son who was gay would be the end of the universe as we know it??

        This is 2013 right... maybe my time machine actually worked....

        Commenter
        Liv
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 08, 2013, 4:36PM
    • Hey Kasey, Great article!!! My now adult sons were encouraged to do what they wanted, having toys from both sides of the stereotype wall. In my 60th year I applaud my mother for allowing her daughters to help on the farm and her sons to learn all manner of domestic duties. I learned to appreciate women and myself, thus allowing my sons to be themselves. I am pleased to hear their strongly feminist views expressed. Happy Mothers Day!
      On both sides of the gender gap at all ages, there are many who want boys to train as the future 'Grunt Studs' of fantasy porn without realising this produces the very worst of men. Ode to pink tutus and ballet flats.

      Commenter
      OpenWindow
      Location
      moved to North Melbourne WOW
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 12:57PM
      • Funny, I know a few families that think nothing of letting their male children choose their own favourite toys, clothes and colours, even when that includes pink and lilac sparkly toys, clothes and colours. My son's security toy when he was three to five was a pink fluffy thing, and he liked to wear skirts. Now he's in his early teens, he can't find the clothes he's like to wear and although he wants to look masculine, he often wears women's size 8s trousers and coats from vinnies to get the effect he's after. So what? and more power to him, I think.

        Commenter
        BC
        Date and time
        May 08, 2013, 1:46PM
        • On the weekend I took my son (4) down to the beach wearing the outfit he'd chosen...a pirate costume, sword, green feather boa and tiara... I have a firm policy of letting my kids choose for themselves. It caused me actual physical pain to get the pink princess bike that my daughter (also 4) chose for her birthday, but it was her choice, on the bright side, she said she wanted it so she could go fast like Mummy, not slow like Daddy!

          Commenter
          Liv
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 08, 2013, 4:39PM
          • I feel sorry for all the men out there who are constrained in the choices they can make by the narrow definition we have of what is "manly". I constantly hear men saying they are so limited that they can't wear some colours or some styles of clothes, they can't let on that they like certain songs or movies, and they can't admit to enjoying activities that are viewed as girly. I think it's sad for them that people then suggest these things imply their sexuality. It is all because we so strictly control what makes a boy. Time to let boys be boys, doing and wearing whatever they like.

            Commenter
            Inns
            Date and time
            May 08, 2013, 6:57PM
            • My 6 year old loves his purple My Little Pony and he likes to dress up his soft toys with his 8 year old brother. At the same time they love lego, matchbox cars and starwars. They aren't embarrassed to read books targeted at "girls" and they are reading Little House on the Prairie at the moment. I cringe at the separation of toys and books into "boys" and "girls". Why, in this day and age, are we still doing it?

              Commenter
              Annie
              Date and time
              May 08, 2013, 9:09PM
              • How ironic that pink used to be the colour of manliness.

                Commenter
                Chris S.
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                May 09, 2013, 2:55AM
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