Girls, Boys and Toys – Happy Chanukkah

A recent surge of interest in a new toy targeted at encouraging girls to discover engineering has made me realise that, this Chanukkah, I may have grown up but the toy manufacturers, retailers and advertising executives have not. I never imagined that in the year 2013, my daughters would effectively be treated as idiots only happy playing with pink, fluffy and largely passive dolls, whilst my friends’ sons would relish the blue, exciting, interactive and occasionally violent toys. This seasonal period, the Archbishop of Canterbury may encourage you to spend less, but I’m going to advise you to spend wisely.

Justin Welby has a point. In a recent page of eight toys advertised as presents for this festive season, only one toy featured cost less than £20. We may be in a period of deep austerity but the toy manufacturers do not really care about your child’s satisfaction – they care about your money. But like the Archbishop of Canterbury I know there is no point in suggesting you do not give presents at all, or solely encourage your children to donate to charitable causes – noble as some people might think this vision to be, I enjoy giving gifts anyway.

What has made me more angry than the vast expense that is embedded in the culture of giving gifts, is the blatant sexism contained within toy ranges (see this campaign against it). That same page featuring eight presents was divided into ‘For Girls’ (read pink) and ‘For Boys’ (read blue). Even my eldest daughter can understand that boys can play with dolls and like pink, whilst she can enjoy assembly toys and holograms and she also knows that the fact they are blue is immaterial. Of course, the manufacturers will bamboozle you with all sorts of research which they suggest shows that girls and boys learn differently, play differently and think differently. Even if some of that bears out as supported by psychological research, which is difficult to ascertain I can assure you, it is not the case that the toy manufacturers want to virtuously assist your child’s learning and play. They are after your money. So my advice, purchase toys which are congruent with your values not with what the aggressive sales pitch tells you.

I am cynical of their intentions, but that is born of an early mistrust of the multitude of options available for new parents; a panoply of choice is stocked on the shelves of superstores and baby fairs, to enhance the first hours, days and months of the life of every new born. As far as I can tell, the manufacturers prey on the vulnerability of parents to want the best for their child and to do or spend whatever they can to ensure their child receives it. This parental vulnerability is more keenly felt as children grow up and can be exploited even more aggressively.

Purchase toys congruent with your values: a pink ball of talking fluff or a pink fairy with wings comes across to me as the grossest exploitation of parents and their children. We’ve spent the early years of our children’s lives encouraging them to try everything, to enjoy playing with all sorts of toys, to rough and tumble and to love books, numbers and even to play with my tablet computer. Our daughters have heard from both their parents, even if they do not yet fully understand, that they can strive to be whatever they want in life.

The problem is that toys being sold to them embed an expectation of difference. They can have toys which are essentially passive, baby dolls and fairies, and preferably the toys should be pink. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with playing at changing a baby’s nappy, in fact it is simply breath taking to see imaginary play with a doll, but at home we also have train sets, cars, tool kits and books. Lots and lots of books.

My children will grow up knowing that rabbis can be women or men. Because Liberal Judaism is part of the constant struggle to have meaningful religious life in the 21st century. We celebrate a commitment to equality and diversity. For a long time, Judaism was part of the system that repressed women and its male followers dictated women’s opportunities to participate in religious life. Thank God, we have begun to overthrow some of the patriarchal discrimination and oppression. If a religion more than 2500 years old can modernise and change, surely it is not too much to ask our toys to do the same. There is not a girl’s toy and boy’s toy. There are toys. That is what I mean by buying presents congruent with your values.

So may the joy of giving and the gift of loving friends and family surround you as we come to celebrate this special time of year.

Chag Urim Sameach – A joyous festival of light to those celebrating.

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NB – for a great response to the aforementioned Engineering Toy, see this blog post by Michelle L. Oyen along with a list of other options for alternatives to gendered toys.

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