Gender Stuff and the Very Young

I've been reading Kirby Larson's series of blog posts regarding gender and reading/writing. She was inspired to interview some writers, librarians and kid-lit industry folks on the issue after reading an essay by librarian Diantha McBride, which appeared in School Library Journal and also after reading Martha Brokenbrough's counter essay, Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?”

After starting to write the world's longest comment over at Kirby's blog, I decided to weigh in here instead -- with a mom's point of view.

Little old feminist me was kinda surprised at first that my 2-yr-old son seemed so naturally inclined towards “toys for boys” -- trains, planes and automobiles. But as Oscar’s grown I’ve thought about this more and more: why should I be surprised that he likes trains, cars, and airplanes? They are cool. The crux here is – they aren’t just cool for boys. Girls often love playing with trains, cars and airplanes too – if given the chance.

It was my son’s love for a toy stroller at a toy store that made me wake up a bit. We were playing at the toy store. I was trying to show him a puzzle or something. I tried to show him a dump truck. I tried to show him a stuffed monkey. But the whole time we were there, he only had eyes for the toy stroller. I couldn’t believe how obsessed he was with it. I decided to buy it. While I was paying, the teller said something like, “Oh ya, the stroller. Practically every kid who comes in here is obsessed with our toy strollers. It’s funny though, usually only moms of girls buy them.” That made me pause. Are strollers girl toys? Was I, too, lumping them as such, when it didn’t, at first, register to me that my son was having a blast playing with the toy stroller and I was trying to show him other toys?

I have come to the realization that my 2-yr-old son actually isn’t naturally inclined towards “toys for boys.” He’s just naturally inclined towards cool toys. And as embarrassing as it is for a feminist to admit, it took awhile for me to give my son the same credit for inclining himself towards some of the other cool toys he loves, which wouldn’t be considered “boy” toys – like his kitchen toys or his stroller.

Without exception other little boys my son’s age who’ve come over to our house have enjoyed (and even fought over) my son’s toy kitchen stuff and his toy stroller. And while our kids are playing I’ve had the following similar conversation with many a parent: “Yes, I know little Johnny always loves playing with toy strollers. Isn’t that cute? How funny! It hadn’t occurred to me that we could actually get Johnny one to play with at home, though.”

Parents hesitate to buy their 2-year-old sons kitchen toys or strollers (even though kitchens and strollers are cool and fun to play with) because kitchens have long been thought of as girl toys. So manufacturers keep making half the kitchen stuff pink, even though both men and women universally are into eating.

I firmly believe that really little kids just like cool stuff, whether it’s for boys or girls. And if parents only encourage their sons with the “boy” stuff, their sons are going to miss out on a lot of fun play.

And that trend goes to books too. Parents mostly buy their sons picture books with boy characters or subjects, without probably thinking about it too much. Many boys are robbed of a deeper perspective of others because they’re brought up from a very young age to read books about people only like themselves. I think Martha was spot on with a lot of her critique. We are often raising our sons to be book bigots.

Kids who read a ton of awesome picture books when they are small are on their way towards being readers. It’s ingrained in them to love story.

And kids who read a ton of awesome picture books with characters who aren’t just like them are on their way towards being readers who read about people who aren’t just like them. It’s ingrained in them.

I would also argue that they are on their way to understanding that people who aren’t just like them have amazing stories to tell.

I think the world would be a better place if more parents read to very young kids more. I also think the world would be an even better place if more parents read books with people who didn’t look just like them to their very young kids more.

It all starts very early. And it starts at home.