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What’s wrong with having boys’ toys and girls’ toys?

When a Tokoroa mum queried McDonald’s gendered Happy Meal toys, the Facebook response was huge – and vitriolic. Depressing enough, but do kids really need different toys based on their gender? All signs point to no, says Thalia Kehoe Rowden.

When Tokoroa mum Imogene Louise last went to McDonald’s, the server asked if the Happy Meal she was ordering was for a boy or a girl. They needed to know, apparently, because there were ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’ to go with the meal.

For some of us, that question is shocking enough, coming in 2017, when women and men have had equal voting rights in New Zealand for 124 years, but worse was the social media reaction when Imogene asked about the policy on the McDonald’s Facebook page.

Imogene was polite, calm and reasonable in her post. So was the McDonald’s staffer who answered her, saying:

“We agree that children should be free to have an interest in whatever toys they like, regardless of their gender. We realise that how our Happy Meals are identified may not be supportive of this.”

(In 2008, prompted by the protests of an 11-year-old, McDonald’s USA announced that its toys would no longer be classified by gender. This doesn’t seem to have filtered through to New Zealand.)

While both sides of the Facebook Q&A treated each other with respect, not so the thousands of commenters there and elsewhere who poured vitriol and ridicule on her for a) her feminist opinion and b) daring to express it.

But here we are at The Spinoff Parents, the most civilised parenting conversation on the internet, so I’m not going to discuss that awful display of online unkindness. Instead I want to talk about whether it really is a big deal if we call trucks “boys’ toys” and dolls “girls’ toys”.

Yeah, it is a big deal, actually, even for people who don’t identify as feminist parents.

The thing is, boys and girls are not born very different. Even among adults, research now shows that “men and women are basically alike in terms of personality, cognitive ability and leadership” [source]. There are more differences among men, for instance, than there are between men and women. And that’s only focusing on the gender binary which we know excludes non-binary and genderqueer people.

Of course, the plant that you water will grow better, right? If we think our children with penises will be better at sport, we might give them more sporty toys, enrol them in more sports teams, and end up with a child who really does have more skill at sport than his sister who was treated differently.

It starts really early for most parents. In one study, researchers asked mothers to guess how well their 11-month-old babies would do at crawling down steep and shallow slopes. Guess what? Mothers of girls underestimated how good their daughters would be at the task, and mothers of boys overestimated their sons’ skills. After they made their predictions, it turned out there was no difference at all in ability between the boys and the girls. The babies performed equally well at the crawling test.

This is a real problem (not just a ‘first world’ one) because we are squishing our kids’ development. Your son might have all the natural talents to make a wonderful counsellor or caregiver, but if he’s shamed for playing with dolls, he might never find that out. Your daughter might find a solution for climate change if she’s encouraged to play with whatever she wants, including engineering toys. If not, we might all miss out on her contribution to society.

And don’t we want boys to grow up to be good dads who can look after babies? If they always get told off for practising, we can hardly be surprised if they’re not confident when the real life baby arrives. The idea that our boys need to grow up to be ‘real men’ who avoid emotions, and solve problems with their fists: how’s that working out for us?

If we want to raise boys who are happy with who they are and ready to respect themselves and the people around them, that has to start with freeing them as kids to play how they want, including exploring empathy and domestic relationships. We have to stop calling things “boy toys” and “girl toys”.

And it’s not just about letting kids stretch their wings. Putting toys into artificially gendered binary categories also encourages lots of them up to feel bad about themselves.

We all know some girls who like getting muddy and some boys who love the dress-ups corner at kindy. If we divide play activities – and life activities – into gendered boxes, we immediately tell a whole bunch of children that there is something wrong with them.

A little boy wants to push a teddy around in a mini-pushchair? “No!” we tell him. “Don’t be a sissy!” Heaven forbid a boy would end up being like that lowest class of humans: a girl.

We go a bit easier on girls who transgress gender rules (because boys are higher status anyway), and just call them tomboys, but we’re still telling them that’s not the proper way to be a girl; that there’s something a bit odd about them.

In a country that has such appalling statistics for teenage depression and youth suicide, don’t you think we should be encouraging kids to revel in who they are, rather than be ashamed of what they like doing?

Don’t we all want happier children? We need to just let toys be toys.

If we can tell our kids – repeatedly, if necessary – that ‘toys are for everyone’, then all our children will be free to explore the world and find out who they are and what they love doing. If there’s no such thing as “boy toys” and “girl toys”, we immediately get rid of half the bullying and shaming that goes on everyday in schools and kindys.

McDonald’s has an influence on millions of children around the world. All Imogene and thousands of other parents are asking is that they do their bit to let toys be toys, and let kids be kids. Genitals don’t equal gender, and they certainly should have nothing to do with the kinds of toys McDonald’s should be giving out.

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former Baptist minister and current mother and development worker. She writes about parenting, social justice and spirituality at Sacraparental.com.

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