Parents and peers reinforce gendered play

August 10, 2010

In Lise Eliot’s telling, toy preferences make for an interesting interplay of biology and social influence. She notes that “preschool-age boys and girls strongly prefer the gender-obvious picks.” In short, it’s trucks vs. dolls.

In fact, children’s gendered toy choice is one of the largest sex differences in behavior, second only to sexual preference itself! But this preference is not nearly so clear in infancy, when boys, in many studies, have been found to like dolls as much as girls do. (All babies are strongly attracted to faces, for obvious survival reasons.) Rather, toy preference emerges toward the end of infancy, grows stronger through the preschool years and then declines somewhat because of a complex interaction of nature and nurture.

Here’s the biological component:

Toddlers’ toy preference is shaped, in part, by prenatal testosterone: girls with a genetic disorder that exposes them to high levels of testosterone and other androgens before birth are much more interested in toy trucks and cars than typical girls are. Even male and female monkeys prefer gender-stereotyped toys, telling us there is something about vehicles, balls and moving parts that resonates with boys’ hormonal priming, drawing them away from their initial face preference and toward toys they can interact with more physically.

But Eliot sees an equally powerful role for culture, especially a child’s peers:

Starting from this innate bias, children’s toy preferences grow more extreme through social shaping. Parents reinforce play that is considered gender-appropriate, especially in boys, and beginning at age three, peers perpetuate gender norms even more than adults do. In one example of peer influence, psychologists Karin Frey of the University of Washington and Diane Ruble of New York University reported in 1992 that elementary school-age boys and girls both opted for a less desirable toy (a kaleidoscope) over a slick Fisher-Price movie viewer after watching a commercial of a same-sex child choosing the kaleidoscope and an opposite-sex child choosing the movie viewer.

A double standard quickly kicks in:

[A]around age five, girls begin choosing “boy” toys and “girl” toys equally. Boys, however, rarely do this cross-over — a divergence that reflects different societal norms. Girls today are allowed — and even encouraged — to play sports, wear pants and build with Legos much more than boys are pushed to don dresses and play house.

In my opening post I quoted Pinker citing a study of 28,000 children in which “two-thirds of the boys were discouraged from playing with dolls, especially by their fathers, out of a fear that they would become gay.” Two-thirds. That’s incredible. Think about the message being sent to those boys: what girls do is separate, Other; to be like a girl is wrong. Get ’em young, the Jesuits said.

Here’s Eliot’s advice on why and how to erase these sex differences:

The different play preferences of boys and girls are important in shaping many mental circuits and later abilities […]. Sporting gear, vehicles and building toys tend to exercise physical and spatial skills, whereas dolls, coloring books and dress-up clothes tend to stimulate verbal, social and fne-motor circuits. Parents and preschool teachers can expand both sets of skills by encouraging girls to play with puzzles, building blocks, throwing games and even video games, while enticing boys to sew, paint, and play as caregivers using props for doctor, Daddy, zookeeper, EMT, and the like.

I have this odd feeling that sexist norms would tend to overpower nonsexist ones on the playground, but I don’t have any studies to back that up. Maybe I shouldn’t be so pessimistic.

Next time: empathy in girls.


One Response to “Parents and peers reinforce gendered play”

  1. […] Parents and peers reinforce gendered play […]

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