Gender-friendly and anti-racist holiday shopping tips

This post begins a series of reflections, suggestions, and quandaries for parents and others contemplating gifts for kids. Although I’m writing as the end-of-year holidays (and accompanying glut of stuff) approach, these thoughts are just as applicable for birthdays and baby showers.

This post suggests some places to start learning and thinking more deeply about what you’re giving to kids. Future posts will focus in on books, clothes, the color pink, and easy ideas for making cool stuff.

First, here is some info from TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment). You can find these excerpts in TRUCE’s Toys, Play, and Young Children Action Guide. We often think that if it’s in the store, it must be ok (somehow, despite all the lead paint scares, phthlate effects, and statements from the American Association of Pediatricians urging parents not to let kids watch TV/videos at ALL until at least age 2). But TRUCE says, “The United States is the only country that does not regulate marketing to children.”

Toys have limited play value for several reasons, such as doing the play for children and having only one “right” way to play. But TRUCE includes two specific points related to gender: that toys have limited play value when they “promote violence and sexualized behavior, which can lead to aggressive and disrespectful play” and when they “separate girls and boys with highly gender-divided toys.”

They point to violent toys that are specifically targeted to young boys, often tied to movies and TV shows for much older kids—that show violence as fun and easy and a good way to solve problems, and promote a fear-based view of the world. They point to sexualized toys marketed to girls that promote shopping, appearance, and being sexy as what matters for their character development. And they specifically mention the princess mania as a problem.

Regarding race and skin color, things have certainly improved from the days when the only dolls and action figures of color were those playing on vicious racist stereotypes. Now I can actually go into any local toy or book store and expect to find some representation of brown and black skinned kids . . . although some may mean one (probably Dora). Good luck finding fabric or clothing showing kids with diverse skin tones, however. But it was only last year that Mattel introduced black Barbie dolls who have full lips and noses rather than being white Barbies painted brown (although they still have long hair, albeit more curly). Brown-skinned dolls are still often represented as “other” in various ways – for example, sometimes toy catalogs will show only white versions of dolls with darker-skinned versions available on the Web site. (BTW, check out this sociologist’s blog about brown-skinned dolls being more expensive and kept in the back of the store http://nortonbooks.typepad.com/everydaysociology/2008/03/racism-in-toyla.html.)

Other than the popularity of Latina character Dora, most characters in children’s media (books, TV, films) are sidekicks or secondary characters, who often provide help or sage advice to the white character. Often in toys and books, a group cast (of Little People, Playskool people, fairies, etc.) will be mostly white with one darker-skinned figure (or in girls’ toys and books, the alternate token cast of “one of each”).

So, what’s a parent (or grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend) to do? Here are a few tips and challenges for you:

1) Read the suggestions in guides like this one by TRUCE: http://www.truceteachers.org/docs/T_Guide_web_10.pdf and this one by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood: http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/holidayguide/. You may want to bookmark these and use them as your devotional reading; a little every day can help you remember why you are holding the line (especially when other friends and family members may be unsupportive or actively ambushing your efforts).

I’ll tell you up front that the big thing these guides will say is, your kid probably doesn’t need any more toys, anyway, and they’ll get a lot more mileage out of an old appliance box and some fabric scraps than anything you spend money on. So maybe you can figure out how to buy less to begin with.

2) Take stock. Ask each mommy and/or daddy in your family to free write for  a few minutes the traits they hope their children will grow up to have. “I hope my child will be . . .” is a good starting prompt. Then take inventory of what you have in your home and what is on your shopping list or the kids’ wish list. Do your values match up with the material messages?

If you’re white (especially if your kids attend a mostly white school/daycare/church/synagogue) and you want your kids to honor and appreciate diversity, put your money where your mouth is. (We try to keep white representation in children’s books, dolls, and toys below half of what we have.)

Whatever your skin tone, make sure portrayals of Native peoples, Asians, Latino/as, people of African descent, etc., are accurate and positive.

If you want your son to grow up to be a caring, thoughtful, emotionally mature person, choose toys that encourage thoughtfulness, overcoming frustration, positive interaction with others instead of toys that encourage immediate gratification, sitting alone in front of a screen, reward for quick (violent) response, and me vs. them attitudes.

You get the idea.

3) Commit to not buying a gender-specific toy that doesn’t need to be gender-specific. In other words, pink microscopes (which, by the way, are less powerful than the “boy” microscopes). One exception to this for me is if you’re trying to break down some preconceptions a child has – if a girl thinks soccer is a boys’ game, maybe a soccer ball with Dora on it will convince her to kick it around. If a boy thinks cooking is a girls’ thing, maybe a “boy” themed cooking set will convince him to get stirring.

4) Draw a line on licensed characters. My grandmother used to say, “I don’t pay anyone to wear their name on my ass.” (My grandmother was a plain-spoken woman.) She was right; wearing logos, store names, and character images amounts to paying a premium for the honor of providing free advertising.

Like roulette wheels, character-related items play on an apparent deep-seated human urge, in this case, to collect. I once worked with a guy who devoted an entire room in his house to his Spiderman collection. Pick any character – Lightning McQueen or Mater from Cars, Dora, SpongeBob, Tinkerbell – and try to count how many different items you could acquire featuring it. Bedsheets, towels, toothpaste, dolls, pajamas, Legos sets (“I know I have three parking garages, but this is the Ultimate Piston Cup Garage!”), etc. You’ll never collect it all, and really, would you want to? This clicked for me the day I heard a girl in the pharmacy beg her mother for toothpaste. “We just bought Dora toothpaste,” her mother reminder her. “Yeah, but this is Diego!” the girl responded. Your line may be different from my line, but have one.

Stay tuned; more soon! (Subscribe to know when the next installment arrives.)

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