I was listening to a parenting columnist on the radio this morning speaking about gender stereotyping for kids in the way that toys are marketed to them. She talked about Barbies and Disney Princesses, and the need to get little girls playing with Tonka trucks and having heroines who are book lovers and intellectuals so that they grow up to be well-rounded adults with a healthy view of feminity.
I agree that a girl needs to have strong role models. But sometimes I wonder if we don't make things more complicated than they need to be. A friend of mine has two girls, and she said she tried buying them trains and Tonka trucks - turns out, they never played with them. Why? Because they didn't like them. I think kids are going to like what they're going to like, and while it's okay to try and expose them to things that are new and different, I don't think we need to put pressure on ourselves if our little girls enjoy being Princesses.
There are so many things that shape the things kids are interested in, not the least of which being family composition. In my house, for example, boy things greatly outnumber girly things. So it's nothing to see Katie riding around on a dump truck, or tossing around some dinky cars. And while dolls were scarce in this house until about two years ago, they are now abundant, and it is not uncommon to see one of the boys carting one around, pushing it in a stroller, or changing a diaper. Why? Because that's what they see Jeff and I doing all the time.
Both of these make me smile, and cause me to think that more important than having all the "right" toys for people to play with it's more important for the kids to have the right kind of examples in their lives. For the boys to have a father who helps out around the house, tends to the baby's needs, and regularly pitches in with housework teaches them that they can do those things too, and still be strong boys. And for Katie, I hope that having a mother who can take joy in her daily motherly duties, while not being afraid to go out in the yard and shovel snow, or mow the lawn, or even work outside the home if she has to, teaches her that women can be many things, and that there is nothing weak about being a stay-at-home wife and mother (which is my ultimate dream). No need to buy Homemaker GI-Joe or Engineer Barbie - let their fantasy play be fantasy, while giving them good role models to look to for reality.
That's easier said than done, because there are so many outside influences that get a say in how our children view the world. But I don't think we are slaves to our culture. We can control what we allow and how much of it we allow. And lately I tend to think simple is better. A friend of mine used to Nanny children when I was in university, and she had a rule that the kids were only allowed one hour of TV a day, even on rainy days. Even as the kids got older (at the time the oldest was 12), they could pick either a one-hour show or two half-hour shows whenever they wanted, but once they had reached the max they were done until the next day. This encouraged them to watch things they really wanted to watch, rather than just lazing around in front of the TV because they had nothing to do. By reducing the quantity they increased the quality of their TV watching, while also learning how to entertain themselves. Of course they hated it, but they were better for it. In this day and age where we are so concerned with getting the right messages to our children, while simultaneously dealing with the epidemic of childhood laziness and obesity, I think less is more when it comes to electronic stimulation of any type - computers, video games, and TV. Not that I think we need to completely cut these things out, but just to allow them in healthy doses.
If we quit relying on toys and media to teach our children what it means to be strong men and women, and focus on actually having relationships with them, being good role models (and having other good role models like grandparents, family and friends) we can all breathe a sigh of relief. And we can indulge in buying our little boys trucks or kitchen toys, or our little girls dolls or tools, depending on what they like, and without feeling like we've failed them. They are going to be who they are going to be, and the best we can do is provide them with a safe environment to grow up in and be themselves. And in my house, I think that simplest is best.