Barbies for girls, cars for boys? Let toys be toys and get them gender neutral presents this Christmas

Kids take cues about their assigned gender roles from the world around them at a young age - and this can be very limiting growing up

Seven days and counting. Are little Jack’s Transformers all wrapped and ready to go? Are you excited about the look on Emily’s face when she opens her Barbie Dream House play set? Or are you of the new and growing band of parents who this Christmas said: ‘Sod it, my child is a child and not a gender stereotype’?

Throughout 2013 the campaign group Let Toys Be Toys has been canvassing the UK’s largest retailers to remove gender labels and “organise toys by genre not gender”. Ten thousand petition signatures later, they revealed the results of their November 2013 survey which found that the proportion of shops using ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ labels on products has reduced by 60 per cent compared with last Christmas.

The campaign organisers are adamant, however, that it’s “just gaining momentum”, and today the issue stepped up a gear when Marks and Spencer announced that they will make all of their toys gender neutral by 2014 after a public lambasting by the Independent’s own Jane Merrick and powerhouse politician Stella Creasy.

While there may be something innately attractive to some young girls about the swoosh and sweep of a silky princess ball gown, and some boy-sterous young lads will always be partial to a game of rough-and-tumble, the harm that gender-specific toys could do to the development of a child shouldn’t be downplayed.

From a young age children take cues about their assigned gender roles from the world around them. Is it any wonder then, that with the deluge of guns, cars and war toys, so many men grow up feeling they need to be “macho” and “hard”? Or that the dollies, ponies, cooking and caring toys aimed at little girls may have contributed to the number of women in science, technology and engineering roles standing at only 13 per cent?

This is all without even delving into the can of worms that is Barbie, whose unattainable and unrealistic body proportions have been blamed as an influence on young girls’ poor body image. In 2006 the University of Sussex compared the effects of exposing young girls to images of Barbie versus a full-figured doll, and found that “early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.”

Although some people criticise the “thrusting” of gender and feminist politics on children, it’s the parents’ responsibility to guard them against insidious advertising. Retailers use pink and blue to divide and conquer, and target young, impressionable, profitable minds who may choose a toy because they think they should, and then grow up with this precept. Of course boys should be allowed their racing tracks and Action Men, and girls should be allowed to play with saccharine dolls to their hearts’ contents - as long as these decisions are made autonomously.

Recently, I attended the press launch for a new dress-up section within a well-known children’s brand store, and was silently galled at what I saw. The little girls were in princess heaven, but one small boy was unhappy. His mother, somewhat exasperated, explained: “He wants to be a witch, silly billy! We’ve told him he’s a knight!”

I say, let him be a witch - with a wig and dress to boot. Let boys be witches or hairdressers or pony-handlers or fairies. And let them be free of the machismo insecurity that from the youngest age prevents them from picking up anything pink. Let girls play in the dirt, and wrestle, and crash cars and fight robots. Childhood is the most creative and imaginative stage in any human’s lifetime: who knows what children will think of or become if we free them from the subconscious shackles of gender conformity.