This season’s influx of gender-neutral toys has provoked the usual backlash. In her Atlantic story, Christina Hoff Sommers lays out the counterattack best. Gender-neutral toys fail, she argues, because boys and girls do not have “identical interests, propensities, or needs.” She reminds us of that time when Hasbro tried to market a dollhouse to boys and those boys generally spent their time catapulting a baby carriage from the roof. She quotes developmental psychologist David Geary saying that “one of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes are children's play preferences." And she reminds us of the famous vervet monkey study, where the female monkeys preferred playing with cooking pots while the males preferred balls and toy cars. “It seems unlikely that the monkeys were indoctrinated by stereotypes in a Top-Toy catalog” she writes. “Something else is going on.”
Sommers is largely right about the research. Toy preference among young children is one of the most enduring gender differences ever found. It’s been replicated by researchers in Africa, Japan, Mexico, India, Switzerland, and across social classes. A well known study in—yes, Sweden—found that 97 percent of boys were more likely than the average girl to spend their time playing with cars, balls or weapons, which, as Lise Eliot points out in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, is a vastly larger measure than any cognitive or personality differences found between the sexes.
But what does that actually mean, and what conclusions can we draw from it? For one thing, the toy preferences may be universal but they don’t really run all that deep. In the vervet study, for example, the males may have liked the cars more than the females did but their favorite toy overall was a stuffed dog. And the females liked the cooking pot best, but the doll only third. (And as Rebecca Jordan Young points out in Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, why is it significant that they liked the cooking pot? Female vervets can’t cook, so maybe they just wanted to whack a fellow monkey over the head with it.) Another well-known Swedish observational study showed that girls with CAH, a hormone abnormality that makes them behave more like boys, did in fact like the boy toys more than the hormonally typical set of girls. But the most popular toy among both sets of girls were the Lincoln Logs, which were a novelty in Sweden. And the second most popular toy for both was a garage with four cars.
Monkeys aside, it’s possible that toy preferences are just as much a result of peer pressure as any innate differences. About midway through their preschool years, girls start to open up their preferences and play with lots of different toys while boys get more adamant about their boy toys, Eliot points out. One logical explanation for this is that boys pay a higher penalty for diversifying. No one looks twice when a girl plays hoops or drives a toy race car; in fact it’s probably considered pretty cool. But a boy with a doll is still almost as alarming to many parents as it was in 1970. One classic study on peer pressure at SUNY Binghamton, for example, showed that boys were twice as likely to avoid exploring the typically girl toys if another child was sitting in the room.
Outside of Sweden, the new kinds of popular toys allow children to express themselves a little more expansively without shoving gender engineering up their noses. (The Lego “Friends” line is mostly pink, and the Barbie construction set emphasizes that girls can also “decorate.”) The most interesting research shows, for example, that when boys rough house, they are not merely being aggressive but developing crucial social and negotiation skills. And girls, when they are hiding in the doll corner, are not being sweet and docile but actually practicing how to dominate one another and start conflicts. A Barbie construction set or a fire station dollhouse recognizes that both boys and girls may want to express many sides of themselves—they may want to knock things down and also play house.
In her Atlantic story, Sommers quotes one expert saying that those Swedish toy catalogs will surely disappear because parents will realize their kids do not want to play with those toys. That might be true, although not long ago it was true that girls did not want soccer cleats for Christmas—and that your husband did not cook the Christmas meal.