It’s true: Boys love trucks and trains and race cars and dinosaurs. But as the mother of four of them, I can tell you with absolute certainty that they also love dolls and dollhouses and dress-up clothes and kitchen play sets. In fact, they love pretty much anything they can play with because they’re kids, and kids love toys, period — until somebody tells them they shouldn’t. But the minute we designate things as “for boys” or “for girls,” that’s exactly what we’re doing: limiting our children’s interests. And frankly, it’s bullshit.
For a long time, my preschooler was obsessed with My Little Pony, and we didn’t care; we loved to watch him light up at the mere mention of his favorite characters, no matter who those characters were. He would wrap himself in the My Little Pony printed blanket his Mimi hand-made for him, snuggle happily with the plush Applejack pony he got for Christmas, watch his favorite episodes of the show over and over, play with his pony figurines for hours, and beg us to read his plethora of My Little Pony storybooks every night at bedtime.
The icing on the cake was the present his uncle gave him for his 4th birthday: a pair of purple, sparkly Crocs, adorned with — you guessed it — My Little Ponies. He wore them proudly to the grocery store and the library, met with smiles and compliments everywhere. The only thing that bothered me about it was the fact that purple sparkly shoes totally clashed with the vast majority of his clothes.
Then one day, someone told him those shoes were “for girls.” And suddenly the compliments didn’t matter anymore. All it took was one person telling him he shouldn’t like what he liked, and he stopped wearing them. In fact, the revelation bothered him so much that he stopped associating with anything Pony-related. He’s almost 5 now, but he’s never been as passionate about any other subject since then. And that makes me sad. One tiny seed of doubt was enough to strangle a flourishing garden of imaginative play.
I don’t get the people who won’t let their boys play with “girl” toys, or vice versa. What exactly are they afraid of? That if their child plays with a toy meant for the opposite sex, it will somehow develop them into some sort of gender-bending deviant? We all have fond memories of our favorite childhood toys, but it would be a stretch to say that any one of them dramatically shapes the trajectory of our lives. It takes so much more than that. I mean, I used to chop the hair off my Barbies like nobody’s business, but I didn’t grow up to become a hairdresser (which, considering how their hacked-up ‘dos turned out, is probably good).
If playing with opposite-gender toys steered their development toward anything, it would more likely be this: a man who knows his way around the kitchen and is nurturing toward his children. A woman who — gasp — has an affinity for machinery or an aptitude for archaeology. A person who doesn’t buy into the notion that men and women must fit into a gender-specific box when it comes to things they’re interested in. Oh, the horror. (Insert all the eyes that ever rolled here.)
When we start telling our kids they’re wrong for liking what they’re naturally drawn to, we’re essentially telling them to second-guess themselves, yet we turn around and preach the gospel of self-confidence. Not only that, but we’re reinforcing the archaic stereotypes that have pigeonholed both genders into certain roles for generations on end. I don’t want to limit my children to what society says they should like. I want them to like the things that make them light up from the inside, the things that bring them real, true joy, whether those things are pink, blue, or otherwise. I want my kids to grow up to be happy, productive, good people. And I’m reasonably certain that enriching their imaginations through play — no matter what kind of toys they’re playing with — can’t hurt.