Gendered toys and the Blind Buying problem: ‘What have you got for an eight year old girl?’

create your top model creative studio by depesche

Top Model outsells every other toy (about 5 to 1) for 8 year old girls at Fun Junction. It’s by far the most popular toy picked by the girls themselves.

We’ve all heard parents say things like ‘that’s not a good toy for you, that’s for…’. In fact, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ve all probably said it ourselves at some point. We tell our children that a toy isn’t appropriate for them for one reason or another. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) the reasons for this are completely legitimate, as the toy may be too advanced or pose a danger to your child. However, there are times when some parents just don’t have a reason, or at best we have a reason which is likely to wither in the face of cross examination.

I work in a toy shop, I have done on-and-off for more than half of my life. I hear what parents really say to their children and to be honest the media (/social media) can be kind of harsh on parents who are choosing toys. Despite the occasional shocker like ‘girls don’t build stuff’ or ‘boys that play with dolls turn into p*@fs’ (yes I have heard this, thankfully the boy in question wasn’t actually within earshot) the overall response of parents to their children is fairly open minded. The problem only really hits its zenith when people are buying for other children. When party time comes along parents of the children invited often get a check-list of ‘favourites’; things that will avoid disappointment and assure the buyer that they’ve not wasted their money.

‘She likes horses and fairies’, ‘He likes Lego’, ‘He’s a really active boy’, ‘she likes drawing’

A brilliant set and one I know boys and girls would both love but again it doesn't fit the averages

Really Gross Science‘ is a fantastic science set and one I know boys and girls would both love but it’s generally not picked by 8 year old girls

I hear these descriptions (and many similar wish lists) so often that I’ve got a set list of go-to products to fit. It makes the whole thing easy, seamless, unchallenging and, most importantly for all involved on busy Saturdays (where multiple siblings might all be attending different parties on the same morning/afternoon) such lists save time.

Sidebar: There’s a lot of emphasis placed on gender targeting in this kind of situation but less people seem concerned about our growing need to force children from stage to stage whilst exclaiming ‘they sure grow up fast don’t they!’. I personally think it’s just as dangerous as the growing gender segregation of toys (I’ve discussed this before here and here) but I won’t get into that too much just now. Sidebar over.

Anyway, here’s the issue that’s really amping up the gender/age divide in toys: combine the need for speed in the choosing of a birthday present with the gender/age specific advertising that kids are bombarded with and you start to see why toy companies have been favouring the targeting of specific groups with a particular line of toys. If a box is clearly, unambiguously, proclaiming that it’s ‘perfect for an 8 year old girl’, then you can bet your butt that thousands of 8 year old girls across the country will be getting at least one for their birthday.

With this in mind of course when Christmas comes around many of these children will pick the big, expensive, heavily advertised toys from the same range to add it to their Christmas list. But the reason for this isn’t just exposure to Christmas advertising, or even in-store displays; they’ve been playing with a cheaper element/elements from the same range since their birthday. It’s part of their life, they’re emotionally invested in the toy and they want to add to the world they’ve been playing in for months.

Lego Friends a brilliant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

Lego Friends a vibrant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

You will not deny a child this, they won’t allow it and if you force the issue you’re the bad guy, you’re the parent who breaks their dreams and dismantles a world of play that feels comfortable and familiar. Step by step, year by year this relationship between child and brand will grow stronger, until eventually advertising won’t matter, they won’t need to hear about the next thing out, all they’ll know is that they want it. And all this because of a toy/toys they got for their birthday.

I constantly try to explain this problem when discussing gender and toys: it’s not as simple as stopping advertisers/toy companies/toy stores from segregating sections (though this plays it’s part). It’s got a lot more to do with an emerging culture of ‘all the class’ birthday parties where all 30 or so children in a class are expected to attend, and bring a gift, whether they’re the birthday girl’s/boy’s best friend or someone who barely talks to them. With unfamiliarity comes generalisation. If you don’t know a child you have to guess what present they’d like based on the tiny amount of information you have. Sometimes (a lot of the time) that’s just an age and their gender. Of course we’ll see people hurry to buy generalised toys aimed at ‘eight year old girls in general’, they have no other option.

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child's hand, brilliant toy but not generally picked by 8 year old girls

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child’s hand, brilliant toy (but again it doesn’t fit the averages) you can get them here.

I try to show people alternatives and to be honest most are chomping at the bit to find something different (they don’t want the child getting 30 of exactly the same toy). However, the problem remains that we’re both entirely, unalterably, in the dark about the actual personality of the child they’re buying for. All we have to work with is a vague list of interests (if we’re lucky) combined with their age and gender. I apologise to anyone from Let Toys Be Toys who reads this but so long as people are in the dark about who they’re buying for I’ll go for the numbers and help them pick the toy that the average child of that age and gender would like.

This is the real problem driving companies to appeal to a specific age/gender and possibly the only solution will be to get to know a lot more about the children in your child’s class. The only way we’re going to open up diversity in play is by knowing children as individuals and for a large portion of the toy buying population this currently is often just not an option.

Keep in mind that on average a parent will probably be taking their child to parties for around half of the Saturdays in the year. If they have more children then they’ve got more parties to buy for. It’s a big expense, even though the individual purchases don’t look like much (maybe an average of £7-£10 per gift), consider what that mounts up to throughout the year. When you add in the expense of travel and any other peripherals (costumes etc.) it’s easy to see why parents are trying their hardest to avoid wasting money. No one wants to imagine that the gift they bought has been sent un-played-with to a charity shop, so they play the odds, pick something that’s statistically likely to go down well, and keep their fingers crossed.

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

So what’s the solution? I have none, I’m sorry but I don’t. We could tone down the number of guests at our children’s parties to include just their friends but when you do that you’re basically asking your child to choose which kids they like and which they don’t/are indifferent to. It’s a difficult thing to do, and a lot of parents would rather avoid the politics and favouritism and just invite the whole class. So Let Toys Be Toys (and the many other groups rightfully campaigning to end the ridiculous segregation of toys by gender) remember: many/most of the people buying toys are just (through no fault of their own) shooting in the dark and despite all the re-named sections and re-packaged toys, these people will still come up to the sales assistant and ask ‘Do you have something that would suit an eight year old girl?’

This is where the next battle will have to be fought and it will be a lot harder going for us all.

Does anyone have any suggestions on what could be done to ease this situation? Do you think I’ve painted too bleak a picture here? As always I welcome any comments/questions/tirades/meanderings, thank you for reading and don’t forget to follow me on twitter to catch up with toy related news/discussions, all the best, Cheers, John

14 comments on “Gendered toys and the Blind Buying problem: ‘What have you got for an eight year old girl?’

  1. ksbeth says:

    i see and hear this all the time in my classroom, mostly as a result of what the kids’ parents have told them. i try to stress playing across the traditional gender lines with toys of all kinds. also happens in our dress up area. love it when kids just dress how they want to there, i tell them when you are acting, you can be anyone or anything you want to be. helps the ones who worry about it.


    • John says:

      Emphasising the ‘pretend’ aspect sounds like a great way of easing the pressure and letting kids explore their social world 🙂 thanks for the suggestion 🙂


  2. dayjess says:

    Hi John, I think you make some really important points here. I completely agree that a lot of the increasing gender divide in marketing toys is driven by people buying toys in ignorance of the child’s true interests. Marketing and social convention means that something highly stereotypical seems like a ‘safe’ choice. This has led to some very unsuccessful (and sometimes downright inappropriate) gifts to my own children. I have a personal policy of never giving generic ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ presents (I’ll buy a doll or a car if I know that’s something the individual child will like, but for kids I don’t know I always go for neutral books or games).


    • John says:

      I think that’s the issue that Let Toys Be Toys are doing such a great job with, building up a larger group of generic toys to choose from. It is tough though and a lot of parents take some persuasion to step away from playing it safe.


  3. dayjess says:

    By the way, that toolbox treasure chest set looks like my daughter’s dream gift – I’ll look that up!


  4. John says:

    Red Toolbox now available on our web site but I have been told we won’t be able to get them back in again so once they’re gone they’re gone. Sorry 🙂


  5. Kids make their own choices of what they want to play with. I have a five year old son, and I am guilty of telling him I don’t want to buy him Sylvanian Family toys because they are for girls. He looks at me, tells me he wants the Ice cream van anyway because he likes Ice cream vans and I relent. He makes his own choices and gender just doesn’t come into it – it has wheels ergo he wants it. Agree – let toys be toys.

    Linking up from #Plugyourposts


    • John says:

      Totally agree, individual children will have massively different tastes in toys than you’ll see if you look at statistics. My kids (both boys) have a pink dolls house, a baby doll, a buggy, loads of cooking things (genuinely can’t see why people think they’re ‘just for girls’) and a host of other toys that just don’t come close to the averages. However, when someone is buying for a child they don’t know we get, as I’ve called it here, the ‘blind buying problem’ and here it’s a case of playing the odds and hoping the child you’re choosing for is at least open to playing with toys typically enjoyed by children their age and gender. As I said this is a hard one to fight for retailers and toy manufacturers, to be honest the best way to fix it is for us (as parents) to pay more attention to the interests of our children’s friends, which in itself can be a tricky thing to do.


  6. ah says:

    good post. I have a strong policy of only buying gender neutral toys for my own children (2 girls) so we have lots of trad lego and astronauts etc. but when I’m buying a present for a child I hardly know, I do often go with lego-friends (or a book) because that seems like a reasonable default. At 6, my eldest is given LOTS of craft kits – I don’t know if the same happens to boys.


    • Thanks 🙂 This scenario is basically universal, as I say I can’t see any other way it could go. If we don’t know a child very well we have no choice but to play it safe and go with the odds, worst case scenario the child can just exchange unwanted gifts. A growing trend we get is a lot of parents buying vouchers for the shop, this works on two levels: 1) the child can get what they want and 2) they can get something really impressive if they get a few vouchers and add them together 🙂


  7. […] for another perspective on this issue, please read this excellent post from someone who is at the frontline of all this – working at a toy shop! His point is a very […]


  8. Late to the party, but I was sent your way via the Man vs. Pink blog.

    “We could tone down the number of guests at our children’s parties to include just their friends but when you do that you’re basically asking your child to choose which kids they like and which they don’t/are indifferent to. It’s a difficult thing to do, and a lot of parents would rather avoid the politics and favouritism and just invite the whole class.”

    I honestly don’t really understand this view. Why can’t we say to a child, “Who would you like to invite to your party?” and see what they say? No pressure on them, it could actually lead to a learning discussion.

    If it really causes anguish–which, as far as I have encountered, Is as likely for the parents–, why not see if other parents could agree to everyone pitching in smaller amounts to a present fund for each child, and their parents could get something ‘from the class’. Much easier for all involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks so much for commenting and on the internet no thread is ever really dead if someone is reading it, so feel free to comment on any post you like on here no matter how old 🙂

      Both options work well (I personally have no problem asking my kids to choose a few friends), all I’m saying is that from what I see a lot of other parents don’t (sometimes can’t?) do this.

      As for the gift fund I’ve seen it done really well, but often that’s when the parents know each other fairly well. I’ve not tried it myself as my sons’ friends don’t always correspond directly to the parents that my wife and I socialise with so it’s not always that easy to breach the subject of money and gifts (basically I’m not sure I know any of them well enough to suggest the gift/cash they give to my kids).

      Overall I share your pro-active attitude to this but I’m also trying to be a realist. There’s a case for seeing this as done by the kids themselves, after all some kids will think they’re friends with everyone (and invite them whether warned by parents or not), some kids might be so socially awkward that they really aren’t sure which kids are their friends and invite the class as a reflex.

      However, I’m inclined to think that the ‘whole class party’ has a lot more to do with parents who want to keep the peace (and maybe some who are living vicariously through their kids, planning the birthday parties they never got themselves).

      Had no idea what a minefield birthday parties could be before I was arranging them and getting my sons ready to attend them. Again, thanks for the comment, what kind of parties did you have as a kid?


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