The fight against gender stereotypes in the Early Years and children

The fight against gender stereotypes in the Early Years and children is a long, complicated and controversial one. One that when I worked in the Early Years industry I wanted to write about, but it was deemed too political. Now I have the chance to. And it’s a topic that people on both sides of the argument feel very strongly about. Many traditional, conservative parents try to instil stereotypes associated with boys or girls in their children and are unable to accept the reality of those in between these two genders or other genders not related to biological sex. They fear their little boy wanting to wear pink princess dresses or their little girl not being interested in doing so will affect their mannerisms, behaviour, gender identity or sexuality later in life.

On the other hand, you thankfully have more parents and Early Years childhood education professionals or psychologists and even governments who think the opposite. They openly encourage children to wear any colours, play with any toys and pretend to be anything they wish. Companies are beginning to re-market many of their toys to all children, irregardless of gender. Lego have recently done this and received a predominantly positive response. And as Christmas approaches, toy companies such as John Adams have released TV ads featuring boys and girls playing with their toys.

Showing that careers are not gendered… Above: Playmobil’s firefighter set includes female firefighters (5.2% of UK firefighter were female – 2017). Below: Swedish company Toy-Toy Group featured a boy playing with a hairdressing set after years of backlash (17% of hairdressers and barbers in the UK were male – 2019).

Other toy companies who are making progress include Barbie creators Mattel who released a line of dolls called Creatable World, where the dolls were “gender neutral” and allowed children to dress them however they wanted using different wigs, accessories and clothes. Unfortunately the line was short-lived and yet Barbie and her friends are still marketed at girls, despite the increase in their diversity over the years. And Mr Potato Head has lost his title as the toy made popular by Toy Story was rebranded as gender neutral.

While a lot of toy stores no longer explicitly label areas as being targeted at one specific gender, many toys are still grouped as such. But in California, large stores are required to erase the gender grouping of products by law. Some however, still look very colour-coded due to packaging with a gradient of shades of pink and purple morphing into hues of blue and green.

The online Disney store has also eliminated categories such as “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” but their clothing ranges are still grouped by gender. In adults sizing and fits will differ between some people of different genders due to growth and body shape but there should be no harm in simply having unisex fits and sizes, which could also be applied to children’s clothing. Their ads may be more inclusive recently, with the addition of LGBT couples and families, POC and children with disabilities in them but many toys are still photographed with either boys or girls according to gender stereotypes (girls with Disney Princesses and Minnie Mouse, boys with Hulk action figures and toys from Cars).

Disney have removed “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” from their website but their marketing still features gender stereotypes.

Regarding the many aforementioned examples of fighting against gender stereotypes, sites such as One Million Moms have consistently rallied against these companies and their moves. And many Facebook groups for parents who post these stories often get a divisive response. This alarming reality that some parents are against children not being allowed to play with, wear or pretend to be whatever they want makes you wonder what their true reasoning behind that mentality is. A fair few of them will say they want to “protect the innocence of their children” by not introducing “confusing” ideas of different genders or mixing genders. They believe the teaching of LGBT issues is unsuitable for children as well, lumping the constructs of sex, sexuality, gender identity and personal expression together as “inappropriate” or even “sinful”.

In July this year, Disney also came under fire from some people when it was revealed Walt Disney World were being more inclusive towards their guests by changing the announcement that said “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” at the start of their fireworks shows to “good evening, dreamers of all ages.” Not long before that Disney also announced its pledge for its parks to be more diverse and inclusive which included allowing their cast members to express themselves through gender-inclusive hairstyles, jewellery, nail styles, and costume choices.

Lewis Hamilton courted controversy a few years ago when he posted a video on social media berating his nephew for wearing a pink princess dress exclaiming “boys don’t wear princess dresses”. Despite this, he soon apologised and was allegedly even spotted with his nephew in a princess dress at Disneyland Paris. He has since worn dresses/skirts/kilts in what was considered a fashion statement (though he claims it was a way to “make amends”). But this phenomenon of apparently straight men (Jaden Smith, Harry Styles) doing so has both turned and shaken heads, proving for many that even adults are not immune to those who are against bending gender stereotypes.

Lewis Hamilton received a lot of criticism for his criticism of his happy nephew wanting to wear a pink princess dress and posting a video about it online. He has since apologised and worn “female” clothing in some photoshoots, which has received further divided opinions on his reasons for doing so.

But how many parents who don’t want to change their views would make it their mission to make sure their children are not playing with certain toys, etc.? They can’t stop them when they’re in nursery or at friends’ houses. Children are always encouraged to use their imagination when playing but would these same parents try and a put a stop to said play if the children suddenly didn’t conform to the societal “norms” of gender stereotypes when imagining? Robbing children of their freedom leads to robbing them of their confidence as adults.

It has also been disheartening to see people who work in the Early Years have the same mindset. They will refuse to use resources that teach children these so-called harmful ideas. An example of this is when the book The Hips on a Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish was released which received heavy backlash and many people, including Early Years practitioners equated the book to teaching sexism, demeaning women and promoting sexualised entertainment. The same goes for the books I Am Jazz and My Daddies!, which I included in my list of books that teach anti-bullying and trans awareness in the Early Years. The former made the American Library Association’s list of Top 10 Challenged Books FOUR years in a row and Gareth Peter, the author of the latter received hateful responses to his book, saying he was “shouting about his sexuality” through it.

The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, My Daddies! and I Am Jazz have all received backlash for their content aimed at young children.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, LGBT issues are not mandatory to be taught in the Early Years and beyond (yet), but diversity and inclusivity are. I can imagine the same parents who believe young children should not be taught about these issues or allowed to express their gender identity or play with or wear whatever they want continue to hold these beliefs for their children – or any children – even when they are older. When is it appropriate to introduce gender neutral toys and activities or the concepts of gender identity to children if not when they are young? As we know, education starts as young as the Early Years. Children largely follow, listen to and absorb what they are told, so why instead of telling children something is only really for one gender are we not telling them it can be for both/all genders?

And what about parents who do allow their children this freedom when they are little but crack down as they get older? They see this growth in them the time for them to grow out of playing dress up or playing with dolls and teddies. They may think that they are trying to encourage their children to grow up but this can lead to confusion and rebellion. Some people will believe that children “growing out” of liking something is natural, while others believe it is a case of people – be they family or friends – not accepting that so children feel pressured into “growing out” of it.

No doubt those children who are forbidden to play with toys, wear clothes or take part in activities deemed for the opposite sex when they are little will forever have that ingrained in their minds. As children growing up they may think it’s okay to tease, bully and exclude other children because of their choices. They then either struggle to understand gender identity and sexual orientation as they grow older or pass these ideals down to their own children. Or they eventually learn for themselves that what they were taught is more harmful than the books and toys which are seen as harmful.

This graphic made by Let Toys Be Toys and National Literacy Trust aims to help tackle gender stereotypes through language and literacy.

Sadly, for young boys, toxic masculinity is always around. From being told certain toys are only for girls to being shamed for crying and being emotional, and from being discouraged to engage in so-called feminine activities such as dancing to using homophobic and transphobic language, toxic masculinity is a dangerous and forever ongoing debate. This can affect the mental health of many and in turn it is well-documented that men are a lot less open to discussing mental health which stems from toxic masculinity.

Lewis Hamilton demonstrated toxic masculinity when he shamed his nephew for all to see and actor and singer-songwriter Joshua Bassett opened up earlier this year about how he was “taught not to cry as a child”. Plus we all remember Ross in Friends beside himself when his young son wouldn’t let go of his toy doll, and Billy Elliot is a classic tale of toxic masculinity that still rings true for some today. Unfortunately, it is sometimes perhaps more prominent in POC. Black, Asian and Latin cultures are known to uphold stricter views on masculinity that potentially lead to further obstacles and disparities in their children beyond the racism they can face later in life.

A recent picture of a boy playing with a kitchen play set went viral, attracting many polarising views. While of course some people were up in arms about a boy playing with a traditionally “girl’s toy” (are these the same people who believe women belong in the kitchen?), with some referencing homosexuality, others who weren’t against it pointed out that there are more male chefs in restaurants than female. Others berated those who essentially shamed a young child for his play choices or the parents for allowing their child their own freedom. Mud kitchens are popular, especially for outdoor play, and many nurseries and playgroups invest in them for children. However, when I worked in the Early Years industry, I saw just as many images of boys playing with mud kitchens whipping up “delights” as I did of girls. Why isn’t there as much focus on that? Is it because the word “mud” implies messy outdoor play and people don’t mind boys doing this as getting messy outdoors is fine but playing with an indoor kitchen isn’t?

This image of a boy having fun with a kitchen play set went viral with different opinions on how to raise children based gender stereotypes.

A recent study has shown that girls also suffer from the female version of toxic masculinity. They are less likely to be interested in science and tech as early as the age of 6 and the majority of toys aimed specifically at girls are said to focus more on their appearance (such as jewellery making kits and nail painting) or encourage traditionally female activities (for example, play kitchens or baby dolls with prams). In a survey by Plan International, it was revealed that two thirds of girls aged 11-18 feel held back by harmful gender stereotypes and more than half have been told they could not do something that boys or men are allowed to do (we all remember Jesminder and Juliette’s mums in Bend It Like Beckham who couldn’t stand their daughters playing football).

Of course, this is not to say there is anything wrong with children adhering to gender stereotypes if that is what they wish rather than what parents thrust upon them. Both of my nieces are very much into “girly” things and despite having some gender neutral toys they have played with, they still prefer unicorns and princesses. This is not contested but they are taught that other children are different – some of their girl friends may not like those too and that’s ok, but they may have boy friends who do and that’s ok too.

As a child growing up, I enjoyed playing with cuddly toys and dolls but also loved dinosaurs and trains. Thankfully I was encouraged without disdain to play with all toys. But in primary school my love of the Spice Girls (young gay boy alert!) and my interest in dance often led to being teased. The boys who did so were into things like football and video games. It proves my earlier statement of some children who were taught that certain toys, interests, activities and hobbies were only suitable for one particular gender rather than both/all may go on to bully other children. Anti-bullying should be ingrained early on in life to counteract the sexist ideals they learn through parents or older siblings – and yes, even some teachers.

Even though some companies are changing their marketing tactics, which have always played a huge part in gender stereotypes, there is still a long way to go. With the public still divided on the subject, this is a debate that could continue going on forever. Children should always be given choices and the freedom to think for themselves no matter their age and not face immediate or future consequences because they do or don’t follow gender stereotypes. But to make real changes, everyone must play a part – parents, teachers, toy companies, the media, governments and even children themselves. Things may not change for all children but they must at least grow up knowing everybody’s choices should be left alone.


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