Last week, I had the honor of attending a White House conference about gender stereotyping in kids' toys and media. It was part of President Obama's ongoing plan to promote more women entering fields that are typically male-dominated—such as science and engineering—while encouraging men to go for jobs that tend to be more popular with women, such as nursing and teaching. It all starts in childhood, after all.
There were many fascinating speakers at the conference—I quickly filled up several pages of my notebook with useful facts and ideas. (I then dropped my notes somewhere in the White House, but I like to think that President Obama found it later and was dazzled by the brilliance of the reporters who came to visit.)
It'd be impossible for me to sum up everything I learned in one blog post, but as I've reflected over this past week, I've come up with a few main messages parents should know about.
1. Adults often unintentionally teach young children gender stereotypes. I spoke with a woman who considers herself open-minded and encourages her son to play with whatever toys he likes. But one day, when he asked her why a man wasn't married, she caught herself thinking, "Because he doesn't want a woman nagging him all the time." We've all got some biases to deal with—but kids can pick up on them from a young age, so it's important to watch what you say.
2. Toy aisles are heavily stereotyped now, but it hasn't always been this way. When I first told a family member about the conference, she rolled her eyes and said, "Oh here we go! More politically correct people complaining about pink and blue toys!" The thinking is that girls have played with pink toys for decades, and they've turned out fine. But that's actually not true. This image from Let Toys Be Toys shows how toys in the '70s were actually made in mostly neutral colors. Yes, they were probably still marketed for girls, but at least they could still be welcoming to boys. You're going to have a harder time convincing a boy to play with a magenta kitchen these days.
3. Boys need help, too. The focus right now tends to be on girls, and I think that's a good thing. Women are consistently paid less and treated unfairly in society, so it's time we focus on helping the younger generation of girls understand their worth. That said, that doesn't mean we should ignore boys' struggles. We need to show them that it's okay to be both masculine and nurturing—just like girls need to know that they can be feminine and powerful.
4. You can stand up to stereotypes with your wallet. If you want to make a change, the best way is to buy gender-neutral toys for your children. Companies will make what there's a demand for. So, as Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, put it, let's show them that we want more art supplies for boys and more building blocks for girls. That way, our kids can grow up feeling free to be themselves.
Chrisanne Grise is the assistant health editor for Parents. As a child, she loved playing with both bugs and princesses. Follow her on Twitter: @xanne.