How To Cure The Gender Toy-Trap At Home

Lynn Beisner shares her method for getting her kids to share (and love) their gender-specific toys.

What sensitized me to the problems of gendered toys was not any feminist ideas about how we teach gender. I had yet to be exposed to any of those ideas. What got me thinking about the gender toy trap was how consistently my kids stole each other’s toys, and how little the “victim” sometimes cared about the theft until s/he saw how much fun the other child was having. My son turned his sister’s pink castle, which she had ignored, into a castle that he defended using the White Knight figurine that came with it, as well as the princess (she shot rays out of her cone-hat), and the dinosaurs from his impressive collection. He used her toy kitchen to cook things to feed his baby dinosaurs so they could grow into big healthy fighters.

My daughter, on the other hand, loved my son’s tool set and taking things apart (sometimes things that should not have been taken apart). I had to keep a real eye on that one: She once disassembled a plugged-in lamp with the cheap tool kit her brother had gotten from his grandparents. She loved her brother’s cars and Legos and the giant blow-up Godzilla that became a pony she proudly rode up and down the halls.

They began doing toy swaps when they were quite young, but this plan failed quite often when the original owner of the toy got a glimpse of how the other child’s imagination had transformed it. We considered making it one large communal toy pile, but occasionally one child would fall in love with a gift that had been given specifically to him or her and it felt wrong to force the child to share that toy.

So, one year I got the bright idea of having a toy auction. We separated the toys into two piles: his and hers by gender. Then we asked them to pick five things out of their individual piles that they would want to be theirs alone, with no one else allowed to touch or play with them. That agonizing decision took hours, even though we assured them it was reversible. We finally extended it to 10 toys, then had lunch and naps. When the kids woke up, we were ready with indelible markers. In turns, we took toys from each child’s pile and put them in a center pile that would be the toys for communal use. If a child wanted a toy that was leaving his or her pile or even a sibling pile to remain individual property, it was negotiated and usually it involved trading a toy from their stash of 10 private toys. Toys neither child cared about and had outgrown went into a box for goodwill. By dinner, we had two happy kids playing with communal toys of mixed gender.

We made it clear that throughout the year, children could negotiate to make a toy a private toy at family meetings. Kassie’s toys were marked with indelible marker “K” someplace inconspicuous, and Matt’s toys with an “M,” and we labeled the rest of the toys with an “N” for nursery. I know that is an odd word to use in the United States, where we stop using the term nursery when the child becomes a toddler, but we had lived in England, and for whatever reason it was a term that worked.

This gender neutral, common property approach was supported by our family’s approach to Christmas. We celebrated what we called the “12 Days of Christmas.” We were aware that how we celebrated was in no way in keeping with the 12 Days of Christmas as it was practiced historically. Ours begins on December 14th, and there is a gift or family activity every night until the 25th.

The first night of Christmas is always an ornament chosen to represent something special from each child’s life that year. These were not gendered, but they were unique. The second night was almost always gloves, hats, and scarves. These were often engineered around specific tastes, but we tried to make them as gender neutral as possible. The third night was usually pajamas, and again these were not gendered so they could be handed down, swapped out, and so forth. The other nights were often books, which we read as a family, games, which we played together as a family, activities that both kids would like and so forth. Many gifts were given directly to the nursery with the expectation of bartering and sharing.

The problem came with the latter days and nights of Christmas, which often included gifts from the two pairs of grandparents and for a few years from the children’s biological father. Those were tougher to negotiate. My instinct was to allow the gifts from their biological father to be automatically sacrosanct individual property. The problem was that he gave our son really wonderful gifts, and our daughter really bad presents. My son, upon seeing the inequity, volunteered his gifts as nursery property, and my daughter followed suit. I am proud of my children for many things, but that act by my son is among the top 10 things I cherish in my heart.

We handled the rest of the holiday by putting our personal twist on the term Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. It involved a big box for Goodwill, white-out to change the markings on some toys, and an intense but fun negotiation in which Barbie dolls doomed for decapitation and science experiments were traded for boxing gloves, and “pretty nails” packs were repackaged as “controlled graffiti kits” and became a locked cabinet nursery gift.

My kids taught me how little they cared about the gender of gifts, and in so doing they challenged my fundamental assumptions about what gender really means. I became a feminist years later, but the foundation for my transformed understanding of gender was Boxing Day, when kids’ imaginations were unbound by gender.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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