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Dolls or Action Figures?

“No, honey, that’s not for you. Those are for boys.” I recently overheard this in a shopping center, as a mom was guiding her young daughter away from the toy fire engines. Although parents may not realize it at the time, comments like this can close off future opportunities for their kids.

“That’s not for you” in this context might simply mean Mom doesn’t want loud toys being smashed into furniture. The unintended consequence is that her daughter no longer sees herself in the same way. Whatever spark drew her to these toys has been diminished rather than ignited.

For boys, ‘that’s not for you’ can show up through emotions, or expressing vulnerability. Nurturing tendencies, such as taking up caregiver roles during playtime, may also be redirected. Instead of allowing children to explore an entire range of activities, they run into gender-based guidelines on how to play, speak, and be.

I asked some of my male colleagues what they played with as children. Most often the first response is “action figures”. Army men, GI Joe, cowboys all filled with adventures outside. My female colleagues had different experiences—primarily baby dolls or fashionable ones with matching accessories. When these dolls did make it outside, it was for runway modeling in the front yard.

Keep in mind, this was the mid-70s. We still had lawn darts and lead paint. My point is that these kids were conditioned to interact with themselves very differently. Girls were cautioned not to get their dolls dirty—with boys it was expected.

Kids respond to toys, color palettes, and activities for any number of reasons. Adults use their life experience to evaluate appropriateness and determine any social implication. This assessment happens in a split second. It’s time to stop and ask yourself why. Why limit their channels of expression and ways of being?

Maybe your son likes pink shoes because they’re so vibrant. Your daughter might want to dress like Darth Vader because, let’s face it, the mask is pretty cool.

Let kids explore what interests them, without being burdened by your interpretation of what it means.

What if Barbie really wants to go repelling and cliff diving with her friends? Not in those shoes she isn’t. Her feet are peaked for high heels, while GI Joe’s are completely flat. How on earth are kids supposed to interpret this? These toys literally promote the idea that men and women are designed for different things.

Recently, a small group of women started moving T-shirts with science and action statements from the “boys” clothing section to the “girls” section. It was met with enthusiasm in many online forums, and also cast a new light on the messages being conveyed. If the message on a shirt seems appropriate for girls, but ridiculous for boys, that’s gender as a social construct.

Telling girls to be “cute” and boys to be “adventurous” limits the potential for everyone.

So think of toys, colors, activities, expressing emotions as one giant dress-up trunk. Let them have at it and decide what fits. Listen to their stories. They will tell you who they are.

Originally published at on March 20, 2018.

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