Life Sciences Research for Lifelong Health

Race tracks and ponies

I freely admit loving to buy presents for kids, and this Christmas I’ve given out monstrosities like a pink light-up tweeting bird and a talking dinosaur that can transform into a motorbike – taking great pleasure in the annoyance of the associated parents. But I’m also acutely aware how we influence our children by our choice of toys for them.

If you haven’t heard of the campaign Let Toys Be Toys, check it out. It’s basically about stopping toys being marketed towards a particular gender – pink dolls for girls, cars and trucks for boys. You may or may not subscribe to the idea that there is an innate difference between girls’ and boys’ play, but it is clear that there is a wide spectrum of different interests in children. By telling them what toys they should play with we limit their full potential.

I’ve long wondered what determines what children want to play with. Is it genetic for some children to conform to gendered play expectations and for others to go against it? Is it just about what toys we offer them? What does the well-meant mantra “There’s no such thing as girls’ and boys’ toys?” actually achieve?

As a scientist, I quite often entertain myself by regarding the whole serious matter of raising kids as an imaginary scientific experiment. Our first child is therefore filed as a small pilot study (n=1). In this instance, their preferences were perfectly aligned with gender stereotypes  – despite, or possibly because of, my persistent offers of alternatives.

No experiment is complete without repeats though. My follow-up experiment consisted of genetically identical litter mates (n=2) – monozygotic twins. Unexpectedly, despite their similarities, these two showed opposite preferences for gender marketed toys. But why? The experimental design argues against genetic factors – they are genetically identical after all. Also, they’ve been in the same womb at the same time ruling out many so-called in utero effects, for example maternal hormone levels. It must be environmental factors then, right? Of course I can’t claim that all my children have been exposed to precisely the same conditions throughout their lives, after all they don’t grow up in a controlled environment, but they grow up in the same family and school, which is about as similar as it gets for a natural habitat. There must be more to it.

With just my maternal observations based just on experiences with my own three children, I obviously don’t have enough information to draw any real scientific conclusions, and of course there is proper science looking into this. Other ideas need to be explored, one of them being that children may need to develop different interests to find their own niche in the family or other social contexts. Another idea suggests that we may find our judgement victim of our own human nature. It’s well documented that humans love finding patterns everywhere. Once we find a pattern (real or perceived), we tend to favour information that supports the pattern. As a result, we risk putting kids into boxes that fit our expected patterns and limiting their aspirations and potential.

Let’s consider our need to find patterns in the context of the twin example: Parents of twins are often advised to support their children to develop their own identities by avoiding the desire to dress them the same and have everything matching. For most things from water bottles to wellie boots, you can often find your choice is between a ‘girl’ and a ‘boy’ version. So you buy one of each. And you give the blue and black superhero bottle to one child, and the white and pink unicorn bottle to the other because it was right on the day.

But it’s easy for the direction of these individual actions to become a habit, which finally results in a genuine preference as the children start to identify themselves with a certain set of attributes. If this is true for genetically identical individuals growing up in the same environment, it would be a miracle if we managed to avoid confirmation bias regarding girls’ and boys’ preferences in general.

Let me end with a description of a recent instance of my personal observations. We recently gave our study participants the opportunity to buy their most wanted toy and their biggest wishes were a race track and a selection of pony toys (you know the ones). Personally, I’ve always thought driving cars round in circles wasn’t particularly interesting, find the hideous ponies pinkish enough to trigger nightmares. What’s more, I feel that few toys are more gender marketed than these. But I respected my children’s desires and went shopping.

On the face of it, all my preconceptions were confirmed as both children conformed to their previous behaviours in choosing their toys – and I could have stopped the observation here. However, the really interesting results came later when the two sets of toys were out side by side in the living room. It’s maybe not surprising that both played with either toy, alongside each other or together. But what truly amazed me was that they actually came up with a game that involved both toys at the same time – bringing the speeding cars together with the pink ponies in surprising harmony.

Golly gosh, isn’t it sometimes astounding how limited the adult imagination is? Maybe we could try to learn something from our children about being imaginative in how we look at the world and in breaking down the barriers that we use to structure our lives.


18 January, 2019

By Christel Krueger