The toy store shelves are stuffed. There’s plenty to choose from. But even with hundreds of options, you can’t decide what’s best for your baby.
Well, you may want to consider a City University London study that suggests babies as young as nine months prefer gender-specific playthings—and that throws your options wide open.
Researchers discovered this fact after observing 101 baby boys and girls, ranging in age from 9 to 32 months, playing freely in a nursery-room setting without parents present.
The babies were divided into three groups by age: first, children 9 to 17 months, an age at which babies demonstrate toy preferences in independent play and are able to make decisions, said British researchers. Next came babies age 18 to 23 months—the age at which children begin to have greater gender awareness. Last were toddlers, 24 to 32 months, for whom the knowledge of gender is further established.
In the experiment, babies were free to play with girly-girl toys (a doll, a pink teddy bear, and a cooking pot) or stereotypical boy toys (a car, a blue teddy bear, a digger, and a ball) without guidance or interference.
The results? Babies in each age group demonstrated a preference for gender-specific toys, indicating the interest develops early. Overall, the toy of choice for the youngest girls was a cooking pot; for boys, a ball.
But as kids got older, both boys and girls showed an interest in stereotypical toys for boys.
Previous studies have looked at gender-related preferences, but they focused on babies’ visual interest and the amount of time they spent looking at a gender-linked item, according to Brenda Todd, Ph.D., senior lecturer in psychology at City University. The results of those studies, she said, are consistent with her group’s findings that even the very youngest prefer toys typed to their own sex.
Of course, you can play a key role in how your kids think about gender, and there are ways to promote gender-neutral thinking in babies. Try these ideas:
1. Purchase Gender-Neutral Toys
Look for shape sorters, stacking cups, toy telephones, interlocking and wooden blocks, balls of varying sizes, puppets, sand and water tables, and push and pull toys—just to name a few neutral items. Other gender-neutral toys include:doctor kits, musical instruments (such as maracas and drums), puzzles, and pretend kitchen and tool sets. Sure, your son may build a tower with the blocks, and your daughter may “treat” her stuffed animals with her medical kit. But you’re still giving your children an opportunity to play with these gender-neutral toys. And you’re teaching kids that it’s fun to play with toys of both genders.
2. Use Gender-Neutral Language
Confront stereotypes head-on by using gender-neutral terms, such as police officer (rather than policeman), firefighter (instead of fireman), and mail carrier (not mailman)—when speaking to your baby, even if she isn’t talking yet.
3. Schedule Playdates with Both Sexes
Invite same-age playmates—regardless of gender. Set out a box of gender-neutral toys that will help promote social skills, cooperative play, and problem solving. Puppets can promote communication skills, such as listening and speaking. Balls and blocks encourage hand-eye coordination and sharing.
4. Teach Through Books
Choose books that feature strong girls and sensitive boys; ask your librarian for recommendations. Avoid tales that promote stereotypes; stock your shelves with those that feature male and female main characters. If you’re reading a book that portrays gender stereotypes, use the story as an opportunity for an age-appropriate discussion on the subject.