|The line between boy-girl play may still be quite distinct but increasingly, modern parents are having fewer hang-ups about cross-gender games among children.
By WONG LI ZA
Toy soldiers and trucks are for boys while blonde-haired dolls are for girls. In a toy store, the girls’ section is typically painted in pink while blue points you to the boys’ aisle.
To a large extent, boys and girls do get drawn to specific types of toys and play, but design, marketing and parental guidance also contribute to gender stereotyping. Admittedly, there are parents who aren’t bothered by the question of gender-related play among their children. Yet, there are those who are highly concerned about the gender divide that it may reinforce.
A case in point is Lego Friends, a girl-oriented range recently introduced by the global brand of toy building bricks, which sparked a debate among Americans uncomfortable with gender-specific games.
For the new line, the company hitherto known for its gender-neutral kits has added a feminine touch to it by having slightly curvier figures in place of the usual blocky ones, and featuring “girlish” sets like a beauty shop, cafe and fashion design studio, and a palette that mostly consists of pinks, light purples and pastel blues. To be fair, though, there are also a less stereotypical veterinary clinic and an inventor’s workshop.
One US-based expert reckoned that such gender-specific toys perpetuate the thinking that there are different things for girls and for boys. There were also worries that girls’ creativity, imagination and intellect could be hampered by what they were told to build.
Last year, a video on YouTube showed four-year-old Riley Maida of New York in a toy store railing at why only girls are supposed to like princesses and boys, superheroes. “Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes, and some boys like princesses. So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different coloured stuff?” the American lass rants in the clip.
The video, captured by her father, went viral and has so far garnered some four million hits, even landing spunky Riley on ABC’s World News With Diane Sawyer last December.
Closer to home, are Malaysian parents riled by the issue of gender-oriented play? Or are they indifferent? Star2 speaks to some of them to get an idea.
Games children play
Alexis Mark does not consciously segregate play between her three children – two boys and a girl. She is more keen to ensure that they get a lot of physical activity outdoors. Hence Ledron Lee, eight, Levant, six, and Lerissa, four, spend a lot of time riding their bicycles and playing wave boards, Beyblades (high-performance tops) as well as badminton and football.
|Ledron (left) and his younger siblings Levant and Lerissa playing a card game. At home, their mother does not consciously set out to segregate play between the boys and the girl.
The kids tend to like the same games. At home, they play with their train sets, cars, board games or masak-masak (play-cooking) together.
“My boys love to play masak-masak. Ledron started with it even before Lerissa was born. I’m pretty okay with it ... after all, most of the famous chefs in the world are male,” Mark, who lives with her family in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, quips.
“However, the boys don’t play with dolls, probably because I have mentioned that boys don’t play with dolls, and they have said things like Barbie dolls are girls’ stuff. But I asked Ledron recently what he felt about boys playing with dolls, and he replied that it’s okay,” adds the 34-year-old homemaker.
Joyce Shoba Abishegam, a teacher, says her eight-year-old son Raphael Rohan Abishegam loves playing with his trucks, lorries and building blocks while her daughter Reanne Reisha, six, is into soft toys and dolls. At times, Reisha will also play with her brother’s toys but not the other way round.
“Rohan has never shown any inclination towards his sister’s toys but my daughter is a little more adventurous. I encourage her to explore and play. I would not mind if my son plays with ‘girls’ toys’ as playing is part of growing up and learning,” says the Klang Valley-based mother-of-two, 40.
|Raphael mainly goes for stuff like trucks, lorries and building blocks, even though his mum doesn’t mind him playing with ‘girls’ toys.’
Norlin Wan Musa, 42, too, is open-minded about the types of toys her daughter Ishra Kamiso, 10, and son Aditya, six, play with as well as the activities they are involved in.
“Adi plays masak-masak and with dolls like Barbie and Baby Alive. I have absolutely no problem with this. To me, these games are no different from skateboarding or playing with action figures, tops and toy guns,” shares the stay-at-home mum from Petaling Jaya who home-schools her kids.
Ishra, meanwhile, has no qualms about playing with trucks, Nerf guns and water pistols. The girl is also into building trucks and cars with blocks. Apart from these, both kids love climbing trees, wall-climbing and spending time at the playground.
|Ishra and her younger brother Aditya indulging in a game of building bricks. Both siblings have no issue playing with trucks and dolls.
Like it or not, there is no lack of toys in stores specifically targeting males or females – a concept accentuated by dynamic marketing. For instance, female figurines are usually nurses, beauticians or teachers while male ones are firemen, policemen or soldiers.
“I guess this happens due to the long history of occupational segregation between the sexes. However, as society progresses, women are becoming more aware of their rights and equality. And it is also more acceptable now for men to take up jobs in conventional female-dominated areas like nursing, beauty and fashion,” opines Mark.
Norlin feels that as consumers, people can consciously choose what they want their kids to be exposed to. “At the same time, I think a toy is just a tool. It’s not just about the toy but more importantly, the attitude that comes with it. For example, if a person is sexist, it is usually reflected in many areas of his or her life,” she says.
Joyce notes that since time immemorial, girls have always played with “girls’ toys” and boys with “boys’ toys.” “Gender stereotypes are not created solely by toys that children choose to play with but by many other factors, namely their upbringing, parental roles, books, the media, their peers and so on.
“Children who are raised in homes where traditional gender-based roles are practised tend to learn from examples and form opinions that remain until adulthood. Children need to be conditioned from young to help out in household chores regardlesss of gender or task. This will prevent them from forming gender-biased opinions, thus building character and instilling responsibility in them,” she says.
Mark believes that men and women have different strengths, making them not equal but complementary to each other.
“I believe that once my children are comfortable and confident with their identity, they will know who they are and their roles as a responsible man or woman,” she adds.
Joyce feels that a majority of today’s modern society, especially the urban folks, have become more aware of gender equality and role reversals, where the sharing of tasks is commonly accepted.
“I would want my kids to grow up to recognise and value humans for their capabilities and not discriminate against genders and abilities.”
Norlin adds: “I would love my kids to accept themselves and everyone as they are. And also to be aware of the difference in opinions and the fact that they have a choice in how they want to deal with it.”
These modern Malaysian parents are clearly not as perturbed as some of their American counterparts over the so-called sexual stereotyping in children’s toys or games. To them, a child’s upbringing is key to breaking down gender barriers.
A level playing field
The idea of different roles for different genders has existed for a long time.
“It has been that way for generations, though subtle changes are happening thanks to global social evolution,” says Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon, associate professor of clinical psychology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Experts, who warn of the implications of promoting gender bias among children even in their choice of toys, exhort parents to nurture a healthy play-and-learn environment for their kids.
While the mothers Star2 interviewed said they do not advocate gender-specific play, the experts are of the opinion that Malaysian parents and caregivers in general are inclined to create gender-biased play environments for their children.
“Children from a young age are taught ‘appropriate’ gender roles for both boys and girls at home, through the education system, play and others,” says Dr Kabita Chakraborty, a Gender Studies lecturer at Universiti Malaya.
“Some stereotypes are that boys play rough and want to play with guns, while girls play nice and love dolls. Parents subscribe to these because that is what they themselves have been taught. But they need to understand that they perpetuate gender discrimination this way.”
She also urges educators to lead the way in creating more gender-inclusive play spaces.
Dr Yvonne Sum, a Malaysian-born international speaker and parenting leadership coach based in Sydney, Australia, says children have a tendency to favour certain types of toys.
What parents need to teach their children, she says, are self-confidence and the ability to express their opinions.
“Whatever children play with is a form of expression and creativity for them. Kids should be allowed to explore different things during play. If we stop them from doing certain things, we need to give them a good explanation. For example, if parents want to stop their child from playing with toys which they feel are dangerous, then they’ll need to explain why,” she adds.
|Dr Kabita: ‘By encouraging boys and girls to play with gender-specific toys, we are limiting their creativity and potential.’
Dr Kabita points out that in gender-bias play, the message to little boys and girls is that their identities are limited.
“It tells little girls who want to play with trucks and who may be inspired to become a future engineer that those toys, jobs and identities are off-limits to her.
“It tells little boys who want to play masak-masak and who may be inspired to become a great chef one day, that those toys, jobs and identities are off-limits to him.
“By encouraging boys and girls to play with gender-specific toys, we are limiting their creativity and potential, and that is a loss for Malaysian society. We would have more female pilots and male nurses if we were more gender-inclusive in children’s environments,” she says.
So how do parents help to promote a healthy, gender-neutral playing and growing up environment for their kids?
“Parents should remember that playing is an important part of the growing up process. So make sure that the children’s playtime is as ‘free’ as possible, a time when the kids can be creative, use their imagination, and just have fun in ways they see fit. All this will make them into more confident and socially well-rounded persons in the future,” Dr Kabita advises.
Dr Ng says while it is good to be neutral in play, he reiterates that mainstream society has been conditioned with stereotypical gender roles for a very long time.
“As such, imposing a need for neutral play would bring about change in society that could also be distressing to certain quarters, for example, with the more traditional and conservative communities,” he says.
“What would be better is to educate both boys and girls on how certain types of play are typically masculine or feminine but what is more important would be to learn mutual respect between genders, and to recognise that either gender has the capacity to play roles that are traditionally ascribed to men or women, rather than to discriminate fixed roles.
|Dr Ng says mainstream society has long been conditioned with stereotypical gender roles.
“In either gender-specific play or neutral play, children should be taught the values of kindness, gentleness and compassion for these attributes are what foster friendships and fellowships on a deeper level in this day and age of consumerism and heightened competition,” he adds.
A proponent of “intentional parenting,” Dr Sum stresses that parents are leaders of their home with different styles and cultures.
“They need to set the rules in a family. In the end, what is important is to foster an open communication between parent and child.
“Parents need to be true to themselves, to be aware of and observe the needs of their children, to find a way to create a happy, win-win situation when there are differences of opinions, and to inspire their children to lead a life that’s best for themselves,” she says.
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