Bringing a tiny, brand-new person into the world is one of the most exciting but also the most terrifying things a person can do.
Before the baby comes along, expectant parents are enthusiastic to learn everything they can about who this person is going to become. And the baby’s sex is one of the only tangible things you know at that point.
Getting excited to raise either a little boy or a little girl is the most natural instinct in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s worth thinking about just how pervasive gender is as a concept, literally from before a child is born.
Kids who are categorized as boy or girl receive different treatment and socialization, and research shows that gender stereotypes are firmly entrenched by the time they’re 10 years old. Part of those stereotypes are reinforced by the products (toys, clothing, etc.) we buy for our kids.
And while many of the products we found below also come in gender-neutral colours like yellow or gray, as someone whose first job was selling baby booties in a suburban mall — shoutout Carrefour Angrignon — I know firsthand how many parents insist their kids display gender markers from a very young age.
A shocking amount of customers needed their baby’s shoes to also read as distinctly “feminine” or “masculine,” and many prioritized that over fit, even though these were the booties that were literally teaching kids how to walk.
So, while buying these products in pink or blue is by no means a bad thing, it’s worth thinking about how easy it can be to reinforce messages without meaning to. Here’s a list of just a few of the gendered kids’ stuff on the market — trust us, there are so many examples, we couldn’t include them all.
Here are some of the gendered products that exist for newborns:
Once they start learning to walk and talk, there are new ways to assign them a gender:
For older kids
After a certain point, it becomes about the two biggies: clothes and toys.
The significant divide between toys marketed at girls and at boys is actually a recent phenomenon. Many ads for toys in the 1970s were surprisingly gender neutral, with boys playing in the kitchen and girls playing with trains. It was in the ’90s that a resurgence of the aggressively gendered toy came back in vogue, and is now more common than ever.
The gendering of toys teaches kids significant lessons about how they should act, who they should be, and what they should and shouldn’t do. Being told a toy is explicitly linked with one gender teaches the other gender that it’s not for them, to such an extend that sociologists call it the “hot potato effect.”
Having a balanced toy box can enhance development, Lauren Spinner, a developmental psychologist, told the New York Times. Many of the toys that are marketed to girls teach communication and social skills, while traditionally “boy” toys teach visual and spatial awareness, which can go on to help with math and science.
“If children only play with one, then they are missing out on a whole host of skills,” she said.
And when it comes to kids’ clothes, it’s clear that girls’ clothing is designed to be pretty, while boy’s clothing is primarily functional.
Boys and girls’ clothes are also cut differently, as an article from Parents points out. That’s why tops for even very young kids tend to be loose-fitting on boys, and quite fitted on girls.
And the slogans on a lot of kids’ clothing represents a stark divide, too: many girls’ clothes emphasize love and beauty, while many boys’ clothes represent strength. That girls are above all taught to be pretty and to care about people while boys are told they should be strong more than anything else is troubling for everyone.
In many cases, enforcing gender norms cause people to suffer well into adulthood. One study showed that gender norms worldwide are understood by kids much earlier than expected — often by age 10 — and they’re incredibly damaging to both girls and boys.
Adherence to gender roles can lead to depression in adult women, and make them vulnerable to violence. Gendered stereotypes can make men more likely to engage in physical violence, as well as more likely to be susceptible to substance abuse and suicide.
In an article about choosing boys’ clothes for her daughter, Sara Clemence wrote in the New York Times that “it’s not just about avoiding skinned knees, but also the subtle and discouraging message that’s woven right into girls’ garments: you are dressed to decorate, not to do.”
This doesn’t mean that buying blue or pink products is wrong or will mess up your kid in the future. But, as with anything else, it’s a good idea to think critically about these kinds of choices.
There are a number of ways parents can “un-gender” their households, including being very open and approachable, having critical conversations about what gender means, and making sure there are some spaces in the house that aren’t pink or blue.
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