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12/18/2018 17:26 EST | Updated 12/18/2018 17:28 EST

Give Your Kids A Gift That Doesn't Come Wrapped Up In Gender Norms

Toys geared towards a specific gender can lead kids down the path of discrimination and unequal power relationships.

Like many parents, it may have been your mission this past year to passionately remind your daughter or son that they can become whatever they want when they grow up. In our home, the cardboard box by the door is my daughter's rocket ship, regularly blasting my mini-astronaut and her little brother off to space. It is made clear to them that there is no limit to what "girls" or "boys" can do.

Photo credit: Kaili Colford/Plan International Canada
My girl and her rocket ship. Many parents tell their girls to shoot for the moon, but during the holidays most of their gifts still only show them that they are valued the most at home.

The holidays are a time where girls and boys can't escape a gravitational pull to another era — one where gender norms were much stricter. Even with all the advances in gender equality and as we approach 2019, the unfortunate reality is that it's still too common for children to receive presents that are wrapped up in pervasive gender stereotypes.

This year's hot toys include a glam glitter doll and a bright pink dollhouse with a spa, and girls' dress-up has been taken to new heights with endless options for princess makeup and beauty kits for little girls. Plastic guns promoted for boys this year appear more realistic and military-like than ever. The gifts seem harmless, right? And they may be given with the sweetest of intentions. Unfortunately, gendered toys geared at boys and girls tend to reinforce existing gender stereotypes and even help shape your child's expectations of themselves, of each other and their role in society.

Ultimately, gendered gift-giving can make the season more stressful for families.

Image Source via Getty Images

It's tempting to bring the frilly dollhouse or kitchen set home — they're so innocent! But, gift by gift, these seemingly cute items can affect girls' real career choices, leading to stereotypical work or even decreasing their desire to pursue further studies. Girls are taught that it's important to look their best and focus their energy on household play like doing the laundry. This also creates an environment where young boys make claims like, "men are more successful because they could have harder jobs."

Boys aren't set up for success, either. Many toys aimed at boys such as action figures and weaponry (which are now integral to Lego play), instil harmful masculinities because of the violence they encourage. These hyper-masculine expectations also come to life when boys are socialized to feel ashamed if they like "girl" colours, clothing or toys.

And it's certainly not commonplace to market dolls for boys to develop care-giving or nurturing traits. Even today there is still such a potent fear of boys being able to be vulnerable and gentle-natured. Just recently, Kevin Hart stepped down as the next Oscar's host because of his homophobic tweets — one of which stated that he would abuse his son if he found him playing with his daughter's dolls.

Photo credit: Kaili Colford/Plan International Canada
When we rethink gendered gift-giving and give a little boy a doll, it helps encourage them to be sensitive and nurturing with others.

Last year, my daughter received some lovely new apparel and accessories — a unicorn, a princess costume, and a tea set. There is nothing inherently wrong with these items. Wherein lies the problem is that my son does not receive the same types of presents. If we gathered around the living room to watch him unwrap a fairy wand or cooking set, guests would automatically assume they were intended for his sister. If we continue to segregate our gifts based on male and female perceived preferences, then we let both boys and girls down, and are guilty of continuing these harmful gender norms. My son will grow up knowing he can share his sister's toys and vice versa. However, it is going to be increasingly difficult to go against the gender divide present at birthday parties and outings.

Our research and work at Plan International Canada illustrates that when everything is geared towards a specific gender, it inevitably leads to stereotyping. Girls and boys are then led down the path of discrimination and unequal power relationships — perpetuating a vicious cycle of gender inequality. One thing that seems to be universal is the lower value of girls compared to boys. As an alarming example, millions of baby girls around the world are denied a birth certificate simply because they are girls. They are deprived of the chance to have an identity and a document that offers special protection against the perils of child marriage, child trafficking and forced or exploitative labour.

Susan Barr via Getty Images

There are countless ways we show boys that they are more valued than girls, and the gifts we give them perfectly illustrate this problem. Having boys' faces predominately featured on packaging for toy robots or chemistry kits still works with the assumption that boys are smarter and encouraged to shoot for the stars.

Here in Canada, many of us wriggle our newborns into their first sleeper or hat that distinctively signifies to others that our little "angel" or "adventurer" has arrived. If you have a young one on your list this season, be the one to opt for gender-neutral options or break boundaries by giving the "girly" gift to a boy who could really benefit from some nurturing playtime. Consider taking it a step further with an ethical gift that gives back and creates a meaningful learning opportunity for children.

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This holiday, I'm not going to fixate on that new shirt that tells my daughter to strike a pose. Instead, I'll tell my kids about how their gift of baby chicks provide income opportunities to a family in El Salvador. Gifts like this help to ensure that girls aren't confined to household duties and can join their brothers at school. It will be a holiday focused on gender-neutral and gender-equal giving.

Kaili Colford is the Senior Manager of Media and Public Relations at Plan International Canada.

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