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I’m so tired of the nature versus nurture debate. I don’t have all the answers to why we become the people we do, but I think a lot more has to do with the environment we were raised in rather than biology. (Let me be clear. I am not talking about sexuality here. That’s a different post for when I’m more educated. ) I’m talking about those sayings you hear at every family gathering like “Oh but boys are just so wild, “Lisa just sits so nice and colors her picture,” “My gosh you’d think Randy had been watching wrestling videos since the day he was born,” or “We never tried to impress the princess thing on Kayla; girls just love stuff like that.” Puke, puke, puke.

Why can’t as a collective people we admit that so much of the way we see the natural attributes given to boys and girls is directly a consequence of the messages that society sends? After all, a kindergartener already recognizes how advertisers play with her feelings. (“Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff?”) The language that is used to market to young girls and boys is completely different. Boys’ toys commercials repeatedly use words like battle, power, action, crash, transform. Girls hear words like magic, fun, fashion, mommy, style. When you grow up identifying with verbs, you’re more likely to believe the world wants you to be active than when you grow up subconsciously intuiting that you’re more like a stagnant noun!

Kids don’t absorb these concepts because their dad sits down with them and sternly says, “OK, Johnny, from now on, you’re going to be into superheros. I don’t want to see you playing with an Easy-Bake Oven.” However, that message is absorbed a million other ways, movies, cereal ads, commercials, gendered toy aisles, the subtle looks that teachers give when a girl or a boy picks up a dress or a football at play time. The world has been showing Randy wrestling videos since he was born, even if you’ve never once shown them on your TV at home.

A lifetime of perpetuating stereotypes that tells girls to be docile and boys to be rambunctious has myriad consequences. A new study that made the PR rounds last week discussed how all kids are losing out on outdoor play time, but girls are suffering the most. They are 16 percent less likely to be taken outdoors by a caregiver. Who can argue conclusively that boys have more energy and girls are bookworms? If girls are clearly being denied the many opportunities to run around like hooligans, swing wildly from the monkey bars, and tackle one another … of course they will think that’s unacceptable play and want to conform to the more demure image that seems to please their parents.

When we take our children to Toys R us and they’re confronted with obvious, stark, color-coded disparities in the aisles, they notice. Boys have army figures, super heroes, cars that crash, loud guns, and camping sets. Girls have pink hair brushes, Hello Kitty stickers, and a Disney princess kitchen. We don’t want to send the message that boys are active, doers, thrill-seekers, trouble makers, whereas girls are homemakers, hair stylists, fashion obsessed, and budding Marth Stewart pepto-pink crafters.  We should encourage our children to be anything they want to be. We should work extra hard to subvert the gendered juggernaut of advertising. We should put our young girls in tennis shoes and chase them around the house, let them climb up the trees, and let them take bold, risky jumps from the top of the swings.

As you grow up, and the world turns ugly, and your family isn’t always able to be right behind you, we should hope that the leaders of tomorrow, girls and boys, will have all the tools and courage and experience they need to take all the bold risks that are necessary to succeed. That starts outside, just running around, when it doesn’t matter if you’re a Larry or a Lisa.


Word Cloud: How Toy Ad Vocabulary Reinforces Gender Stereotypes

The War Over Sexist Onesies