As long as I have been around the toy industry, there has been a discussion, sometimes heated, about the role that gender plays in children’s toy preferences. Do kids actually choose toys that are traditionally considered to be male- or female-specific, and if so, why? It’s a classic question of heredity versus environment.
Virtually every study that I have read over the years agreed that children do tend to prefer toys that are “typed” to their own gender, but it is very difficult to screen out societal and parental pressure, approval, encouragement, affirmation, etc. Young people cannot be studied in the way that lab rats are, where there are strict control groups, and exposure to any given factor can be extended or withheld.
That being the case, facts can’t be established with absolute certainty, and we are left to make observations and arrive at informed opinions. The problem is that we aren’t lab rats either, and our opinions are inevitably affected by our own biases and life experiences.
In looking through the literature, though, I did come across some interesting points that favor the nature explanation over the nurture. Consider the following, as Rod Serling would say, “submitted for your approval.”
The duality of toy design is not a Western cultural phenomenon. In every human society, including those that are isolated or preindustrial, there are different sets of toys for boys and girls, and they correspond in nature to our own.
According to the American Psychological Association, the tendency to choose gender-typed toys exists among children who are “pre-socialization,” or too young to be influenced by culture. By definition, their behavior is driven by biological factors.
Finally, it’s worth noting that we are not the only primates who play with toys. Rhesus monkeys, for example, are partial to playthings and choose them according to gender. It’s hard to imagine that those choices are based upon societal pressures.
Leaving science aside for a moment, most of us also have a wealth of personal experience on this topic. I’m aware of the fact that anecdotal evidence can be misleading, but I also know that we form most of our opinions from our own observations, and that it makes perfect sense to do so.
I grew up with two older sisters. As far as I know, neither of them ever took the slightest interest in any of the toys I played with, and I have no recollection of them ever playing with anything I would call a toy. I do remember a large dollhouse which had been passed down from a previous generation, and one of my sisters collects dolls now, so I assume she liked dolls back then.
My toys could be neatly divided into three categories, one of which was baseball cards. I can’t tell you what was so magical about them to me and my friends, but we were all hooked. Maybe it was the surprise package experience of acquiring them, or the mysterious data on the back, or just the lure of collecting.
Another was what we called “little men,” which were basically the same sort of toy soldiers that had been a staple of toy making for centuries. Fortunately for me, manufacturers had by then made the transition from lead to plastic.
By far the largest category, though, was my stable of toy motor vehicles. It included everything from the original Matchbox miniatures up to large-scale models that took weeks to assemble, including cars, ships, airplanes, tanks, you name it.
Of all that rolling stock, the trucks were the best. Whether it was a double tractor-trailer, a troop transport, a dump truck, an ambulance, a delivery van or whatever, it somehow lent itself to the whole idea of play.
Perhaps it was the implicit storylines that those vehicles carried with them. A truck exists not to be something but to do something.
At any rate, my sisters and I seem to have conformed pretty closely to cultural stereotypes. They played with dolls and I played with trucks. Although I haven’t always had the opportunity to observe children at play over the intervening decades, my house has become a popular play venue for little kids in recent years.
In my family room, there is a big plastic tow truck. I don’t know how it got there, but I know that little boys can’t walk past the thing without touching it, while little girls don’t seem to notice it. Sometimes I’m tempted to take it for a spin myself.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s little doubt that gender affects toy selection. I don’t know to what extent those preferences are governed by genetics, and I’m not sure that I really care one way or the other. They are what they are.
I’m more interested in how childhood choices affect the ones we make as adults, and how both may be changing over time. In other words, how do dolls and trucks carry over into life?
I have only once owned a pickup truck, and it was about 40 years ago when I was a first-time homeowner. The place needed a great deal of work, and back then I had little choice but to do most of it myself. These days I drive an SUV for the same reason I once drove a truck, that it fits the jobs I need to get done.
The majority of my male friends, however, drive trucks. We live in a rural area and a number of them have outdoor hobbies like fishing, some do their own house and lawn work, and a few probably just think that trucks are cool.
I have no close female friends or relatives who drive trucks. From that bit of anecdotal evidence I had always drawn the inference that women don’t drive trucks, and up until quite recently that was pretty accurate. It no longer is.
Over the past five years, the shift in new vehicle sales from cars to SUVs in the U.S. has been dramatic. In 2014 there were about 8 million cars sold versus 6 million SUVs, but by 2018 the numbers had reversed. The change is so profound that Ford has said that it will stop building passenger cars in this country, and GM may not be far behind.
That shift has tended to overshadow another one, which I find to be more interesting. Over the past decade, the number of women driving pickup trucks has doubled, and they now buy more than half a million of the new trucks sold each year, or around 20 percent of the total.
Here is my question for you. Will the increasing popularity of trucks among women have an effect on little girls, and the toys they choose?
I’m guessing that it will.