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California and Lego embrace gender neutral toys. Parents need to get with the program.

Parents carry internalized beliefs about gender roles that have the potential to limit the growth and development of their kids.
Image: Lego bricks
Lego has announced it will work to remove gender stereotypes from its toys following a survey commissioned by the company.Patrick Pleul / dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images file

Kids are changing their mindsets, even if society isn’t quite catching up.

Recent research commissioned by the Danish toymaker Lego reveals that girls feel empowered to engage in all kinds of play and activities, with 82 percent of them believing that it’s OK for girls to play football and boys to practice ballet. The percentage of boys who agree is smaller, but still an overwhelming majority at 71 percent.

When was the last time you saw a show about a boy whose superpower involves sewing or cooking?

The bad news is that parents continue to carry some internalized beliefs about gender roles that have the potential to limit the growth and development of kids and hold them back. And that makes new legislation and efforts from companies like Lego to overcome this ingrained behavior that much more important.

The survey of 7,000 parents and children ages 6-14 from seven countries, including the United States, indicated that parents are almost six times as likely to think of scientists and athletes as men and eight times as likely to think of engineers as men. Parents are also more likely to encourage girls to engage in activities that are more cognitive, artistic and performance-based while pushing boys into STEM-like activities, such as science, coding and building.

When engaged in unstructured play of their own design, kids explore their ideas and interests, build coping and social skills, express and work through their feelings, and develop empathy and problem-solving skills. When we limit the scope of their play by telling them what to play and how to do it, we stunt their development.

Free play is the best vehicle for child development, but society is so busy “helping” kids find their passions and building their skills from a young age that kids miss out on developing their own identities. When a young girl appears to have a talent for dance, for example, parents often feel pressure to prioritize that at the expense of exploring other interests. This boxes their child into one specific activity, thereby hindering the natural curiosity that fuels child development.

Of course, it’s not just parents who convey messages that shape the gender roles and expectations their children have. The broader society also plays a large role. The marketing of toys and products is particularly powerful in grooming how kids perceive gender expectations — for good or bad.

Through media, publishing and education, girls are seeing with their own eyes that women can succeed in a wide variety of fields. There are children’s television shows that revolve around female characters and middle grade books with female heroes. Girls are seeing themselves in all kinds of roles, and that empowers them.

But when was the last time you saw a show about a boy whose superpower involves sewing or cooking? Where is the book series focused on men making the world a better place by following their “nontraditional” passions? We don’t see the same resources readily available for boys who don’t adhere to dominant gender norms. And if toys are marketed for girls or boys, where does that leave our nonbinary youth?

This discrepancy might help to explain why the new Lego survey shows that girls tend to be less rigid about gender roles than boys. For instance, 62 percent of girls responded that some activities are meant just for girls while others are meant for boys, compared to 74 percent of boys.

Toy companies have a responsibility to meet the needs and interests of all kids. It’s encouraging to see that Lego is committed to changing these ingrained narratives by promoting inclusive play and removing gender messaging from their products. But we can’t stop there.

Thankfully, the state of California isn’t. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Saturday that requires large department stores to display toys and child care items in gender-neutral ways. While the law doesn’t remove traditional boys and girls sections from department stores, or apply to clothing, it does call for inclusive marketing for children’s products.

While California is the first state to sign a law like this, other organizations around the world are also working to remove gender stereotyping from toys. The U.K.-based Let Toys Be Toys is a grassroots award-winning campaign dedicated to encouraging the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by marketing their products according to gender.

To promote inclusive play and learning, however, we can’t simply focus on physical toys and content. We need to reframe our attitudes and beliefs around them. The way we do that is by stepping back and letting children play. When toy sellers and parents move away from pink and blue, kids are left with endless possibilities.

I’ve seen this phenomenon up close in the students I work with. One 10-year-old girl recently showed me the town she’d made from mixed up Lego sets. Her face lit up as she led me into her imaginary world, where the people can be anything they want and no one ever fights. A male pirate runs a bakery/hair salon, for example, and that’s just fine.

Seeing her mixed-up Lego town transported me back to my own childhood and getting lost in Legos with my brother. As far as I can recall, no Lego person ever retained their original outfit or hair. We delighted in mixing them up and creating basement-sized worlds where Legos and Matchbox cars lived in harmony with Superman and Strawberry Shortcake. Together, they solved the problems of the day and everyone was a hero.

Research shows a steady decline in free play since the 1980s. Parental fear for the safety of their children is one reason unsupervised outdoor play began to decline, but kids today also face more homework, specialized interests and a culture of busyness that keeps them running from one adult-directed activity to the next.

We are long overdue for the return of free play with no expectations and no labels. Our kids will be better for it — and hopefully be more inclusive adults when it’s their turn.