In the run-up to Christmas, many of us, whether we are parents or not, will want to buy a toy as a present for a little boy or girl.
While older children are all too ready to say what they want, choosing for very young children can be tricky.
Should you stick with the traditional choices: a truck for a boy and a doll for a girl, or should you challenge the stereotypes?
Although toy manufacturers and advertisers tend to promote “gender-specific” toys, questioning whether boys and girls really are attracted to different kinds of objects is important in furthering our understanding of how gender norms develop.
For example, do sex differences in toy preferences appear as soon as infants can demonstrate them?
Or do they develop with the acquisition of knowledge about their own sex and what adults and other children expect from boys and girls?
There is clear evidence that children over the age of two years typically prefer toys stereotyped to their own sex, but studies involving young babies have to rely on interpretation of their visual behaviour as they are shown toys, or pictures of toys, in a laboratory setting.
So in our research, conducted in collaboration with the University College London, we aimed to discover which “gender-typed” toys very young girls and boys actually want to play with.
We studied infants and children aged between nine months and 32 months.
We chose this range because from this age, children can move independently to demonstrate their interests and are going through developmental stages where they learn about what it means to be either a boy or a girl.
And with their parent’s permission, we decided to study children in multicultural London nurseries rather than in their homes or our laboratory, where the presence of their parents might influence their behaviour.
Before choosing toys for our research, we carried out a survey among local adults, asking them “which toy comes to mind when you are thinking of a young boy or a young girl?”
Our final line-up included a digger, car and ball with the boys in mind, and a doll, cooking pot and pink teddy as the “girl” toys.
And as previous research has shown that colour can also guide toy preferences, we added a blue teddy into the mix to see whether that would appeal more to the boys.
The toys were arranged in a semi-circle, one metre away from the child, so that they needed to move independently to make their selections. We then recorded the times each child played with each toy.
B for ball
Results from the 47 girls and 54 boys who took part in our study showed an overwhelming and highly significant preference for toys typed to the child’s gender.
When we broke down the results into narrower age groups, chosen to reflect their stage of gender knowledge development, we found the same results.
Among the very youngest infants – aged nine to 12 months – we found that all of the boys spent some time playing with the ball. And that playing with the ball accounted for half of the total time boys played with the toys.
In contrast, the youngest girls played with the cooking pot for a similar proportion of the time. There was little interest in the teddies from either boys or girls.
Let toys be toys
Finding sex difference in the toy preferences of boys and girls aged less than 18 months old, suggests these differences and preferences are there before extensive socialisation. But such predispositions may be modified as children are able to label themselves as boys or girls and learn more about social norms.
Our research also found that while boys’ preferences for male-typed toys increased across our chosen age groups, the pattern for girls was rather different.
Although girls of all ages preferred “female-typed” toys, the youngest group showed the strongest preference.
And both boys and girls increasing preferred “boy” toys as they approached their third birthday. Which raises questions about gender assumptions of what a “boy” toy or “girl” toy actually is.
So as well as finding sex differences in toy preferences, we also found sex differences in the developmental pathways of boys and girls. We can only speculate that, at least in the location of our study, stereotypes for boys are more rigid than those for girls.
As in modern society, girls’ play with “male-typed” toys is often encouraged more than boys’ play with toys related to a care-giving role.
But of course, some of the boys and girls in our study didn’t stick to typical “boy” “girl” preferences at all, so it’s probably best to keep the individual child in mind when choosing that present.
Brenda Todd is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, City, University of London
* This article was originally published on The Conversation