Had a couple of conversations on twitter about gender the other day and it made me want to revisit this post, just to clear up any confusion people might have about how I feel about gendering toys for children. Hope you enjoy it and please feel free to fire back any comments you have (good or bad).
I originally wrote this post a few months ago when I came home from work to find Logan and Alexander helping Grampa to fix a cupboard door. My mum and dad were watching the boys and my dad decided to do a much needed bit of DIY. When I was growing up my dad doing DIY was pretty much a constant event in our house. As soon as somebody mentions a dad doing DIY we start to expect the kind of story that highlights the bumbling mistakes of the dad and the inevitable call out to a professional. This was never the case with my dad, he was generally careful; especially when it came to electrical repairs, to be honest I don’t really remember any cases of him jumping in without doing at least a bit of research into what was involved in a job. As a result I grew up with the belief that if I’m careful and pay attention I’ll be able to fix most things that go wrong in the house. That said, what I saw on TV sent a very different message, through characters like Homer Simpson and Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor.
I often have a good moan at the media blaming them for many of the woes of modern parenting but I can’t help it, I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I think most kids today are about the same. As a result I’d bet that TV plays a big role in the kind of self-image that kids come to develop (possibly bigger now than ever, now that we have dedicated kids TV stations). I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way men are sometimes depicted in the media. So, on to how this impacts toys: simply put I think that men are often depicted as not-so-handy, this is apparent in family comedies in particular, and as a result I expect that many boys exposed to that are likely to develop an image of themselves as similarly lacking in handy skills. If this is the case then you could expect traditional construction toys (like meccano) and toys involving the use of tools to have lost popularity from one generation to the next, and the sad fact is that they have.
Of course there’s no doubt that other factors have played their part in this. There’s no denying the massive role that computer games play in many young boys’ lives now compared even to when I was a kid (back in the 80s). What’s more we can’t ignore the role that the dreaded health and safety regulations (sometimes the killing stroke to some of the best toys) will have likely played in stamping down on toys with points and cutting edges.
However, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to. However there is nothing inherent in the use of tools that excludes girls from playing. The debate about why girls typically choose pink, dolls, and fashion, and boys pick blue, construction and science toys rages on and my own perspective is hard to get a handle on in one post but I have tried in a previous post.
Describing shows like ‘Bob The Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’ as depictions of positive male role models may sound as if I’m advocating an exclusionary stance against girls when it comes to aspirations relating to characters like this. It’s important that I stress a distinction here between someone who claims that girls can’t do something and someone who wishes to emphasise the need for positive male role-models. I belong to the latter camp; while I wholeheartedly agree that girls need to feel capable of following a career path relating to a manual skill I don’t think this should be at the expense of a positive role model for boys. I also think that it’s important that these role-models follow boys throughout their development (beyond pre-school) and sadly they don’t. As soon as boys get into primary school they start to encounter an academic bias that makes light of the role of manual skills (unless you count art and craft). What they’re left with is sport and if they find themselves lacking in that department there isn’t anywhere traditionally ‘boyish’ left.
In the shop we have a woodworking kit with a saw, a hammer and all the other tools you’ll need to complete the projects in the box (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post). Sadly this set has sat there since before Christmas. I would have loved this set as a wee boy but it’s had little to no interest from children of the appropriate age. I don’t know if it’s lack of familiarity for the kids coming into the shop or if it’s lack of exposure from their parents but I haven’t seen one boy (or girl for that matter) giving it a second glance. Price may be a factor for the parents but that still doesn’t explain the lack of attention from the kids (who often pay little to no attention to the price of the toys they’re looking at).
This post has a lot in common with another post I did about gender: in both I blame media depictions of day-to-day life which I think is a depiction of shifts in gender stereotypes. In both posts I feel the need to blame these factors for the loss of interest in playing with these more ‘mundane’ kinds of toys. And my conclusion is very similar also, if children become familiar with the notion that only professionals can fix or build things, this has the potential to lead them to lose faith in their ability to look after their homes. I know I’ve concentrated on how boys are effected but it’s for a reason: whilst girls seem to be discouraged from ‘domestic’ toys in order to expose them to something ‘better’, when it comes to construction and repair boys seem to be getting the message that they can’t do these things whilst at the same time they are being denied a positive alternative. One move is seen as empowerment for girls but the alternative for boys seems to leave them questioning their abilities.
There’s no denying that the media often portrays the average man as unable to make/ do things for comedic effect but do you think I’m right to conclude that this can effect the attitudes of boys in relation to construction toys? On top of this do you think that working with your hands is beginning to be seen as somehow uncivilised or outdated? (Though it’s worth noting that if this were the case one would expect a similar drop in craft activities, which hasn’t happened). Also perhaps it’s just me but the recommended age for construction kits seems to have crept up; meccano is now for 7 or 8 years+, as is airfix, but I remember doing these kinds of sets at 5 or 6 years old (and no I’m not trying to sound like a child prodigy, loads of my friends did it too). Is this simply a health and safety issue or is it yet another example of boys being seen as ‘un-handy’?