My new playground friend looked across at me as we pushed our littlest daughters on the swings, and chatted about the big girls’ deep love for all things Frozen.
“But if you don’t mind me asking, how are you going to manage about the toys? Now you have a boy as well I mean.”
I simply stood there with a slight frown and probably a bit of a guppy fish expression. I can understand the curiosity; we both have two girls, the eldest a couple of days apart and the younger two with a few months between them, but only I have a little boy as well. I guess she wondered what difference that would make, and how I would fit a whole extra set of toys into my lounge. And I thought about our lounge and the toys piled up around it, the stacks of books, the building blocks, the mountain of Duplo, the train tracks and our play kitchen, and I couldn’t really see that anything would change.
We’ve got plenty of pink and girly bits and bobs around our house and sometimes it feels like every princess dress ever made is stuffed into our dressing up box or trailing all over the floor in a glittery Disney explosion, but on the whole our toys are stereotype free. They’re not gender specific and they won’t change when Pip gets big enough to start pulling them out all over the floor. Even the play kitchen is red and blue not pink and flowery, mainly because H and I were determined to choose one that we’d like to look at evening after evening.
And it made me wonder whether there is an expectation that just as I’ve used different clothes for Pip (well apart from the vests because I’m certain that little boys can also wear vests with a cupcake and bunnies on the front), I’ll also need different toys. Blue ones. That say BoyDiggerTruckTrainScience all over them.
Bringing up two girls there’s been a little voice in the back of my head that tells me to make sure that I get the balance right, to make sure that they know that they can do anything they want, that the pink comes without stereotypes or enforced gender consequences. And from the girl-mummy point of view it feels like in some way we’re always fighting; fighting for recognition that not all girls toys have to be pink, that Duplo fire stations don’t have to live in the ‘boy’ aisle and washing up sets under ‘girl’, or that computer programming can be done by girls (I’m looking at you Barbie). And yet if Kitty decided to pass over the princess dresses in favour of a rocket launching kit I doubt anyone would look askance at it, think it was strange, or wonder why on earth she would want to do that; I think we’ve moved on enough that she wouldn’t be labelled a geek and I know for a fact that both of her parents would happily play rockets.
But what about Pip, what about my gorgeous sweet happy little boy? Right now his small collection of favourite toys includes a Lamaze dolly named Emily. She’s got a nice crinkly pink dress, and a flowery rattle and all sorts of very chewable texture all over her hat and the hem of her frock. Pip likes to try to eat her, just as both of his sisters did before him. Because this is a handmedown, a dolly bought for a very tiny Kitty, loved by Elma and now passed on to Pip. I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation about buying it for Kitty, but I wonder whether I would have bought it had Pip been my eldest child.
And as he gets bigger, what if his heart’s desire is a little pram to push his teddies in; what if he wants princess Duplo and isn’t bothered about the train. I suspect that that won’t be the case but I hope that I have the courage to let him follow his heart. I have no doubt that at some point Pip will spend many happy afternoons playing dress up in our princess dresses. He’s got two big sisters, access to a lot of dresses, and they’re all glittery and sparkly and all things wonderful. But whereas Kitty went to the chip shop with Grandad in her Rapunzel dress without a care, if Pip wanted to do the same I rather fear he’d either be mistaken for a girl or be on the receiving end of glances that at best would be confused.
And that made me wonder what it is that we’re teaching our children. If the gender equality is in fact only one way (girls can like boy things) is the message that our children are receiving not that it’s just as good to be a girl as a boy, but still that boys are better, just with the caveat that girls can be like boys too? That it’s OK for our girls to like ‘girly’ things but that they should also strive to be just like the boys; but as for the boys themselves, well why would they want to do ‘girly’ things?
I don’t doubt that there is still some way to go in society’s perceptions of our girls, but I think that that’s only half of it. I’m beginning to think that just as big a challenge is needed to the boy stereotype as the girl. If we can teach our boys that it’s perfectly OK to want to play princesses and our girls to blow up the kitchen with chemistry experiments maybe we can pincer movement all of these preconceived ideas about children.
So that hopefully, finally, one day, toys will just be toys.