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Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue

Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue

February 18, 2015

Thea Hughes spoke recently with Dr Christia Spears Brown, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Psychology and author of ‘Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue.

Dr Brown has spent more than a decade focusing her research on the damaging effects of gender stereotypes on children.

Christia, thanks so much for taking time out to talk with me today.

I’m sure many of our readers would be interested to know why you felt compelled to write ‘Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue’ … were there particular things you were seeing in your work as a developmental psychologist that led you to feel compelled to speak out?

I was seeing two disturbing trends. First, I noticed more and more toys being promoted as the “girl version” or the “boy version”. The Little People School Bus, a classic toy from my childhood, is now sold in pink as well as the traditional yellow. Bikes for kids only come in pink/purple or black/silver/red. I noticed when shopping for my own kids, that it was becoming increasingly difficult to buy just a toy. I could only find options that were gender-specific. I kept being frustrated at the toy store that I was having to make a statement about gender every single time I wanted to buy something, even when the toy itself was traditionally gender-neutral (like a bike).

The second trend I noticed was that more and more public schools in the US were being structured as single-sex schools on the premise that boys and girls are so different that they can’t even be taught in the same way. I had done some work on this issue and was frustrated that parents really seem to think that boys’ and girls’  brains are very different from one another and they learn completely differently. The research however, says the exact opposite. Research really says that boys and girls are remarkably similar in how they think and what they like, they just become different after years of adults treating them differently. Both trends, with toys and schools, seem to be pushing boys and girls further apart from one another, like we are different species or come from different planets. So I decided to write a book to talk to parents about what the science really shows about the differences between boys and girls and to help parents see how detrimental it is to constantly choose this color-coded, gender-separated world for our kids to live in.

Is there an overarching message of your book — why do you think it’s so important we ‘parent beyond pink and blue’?

I think it is so important for a couple of reasons. First, gender stereotypes are blatantly inaccurate. This isn’t a moral issue or a political issue. Good science is very clear. The differences between boys and girls is not as big as the difference between individual children. So if parents use their child’s gender to guide their assumptions for their children and their decisions for their children, then they are going to be making biased decisions. Instead, they should focus on their individual child’s behavior, traits, and skills, which will sometimes align with the stereotypes for that child’s gender and sometimes not.

Studies show that if I give a child a new toy, one they have never seen before, and tell them it is a girl’s toy, the girls will love playing with it and the boys will reject it.
But the bigger reason it matters is because the impact of these biases can affect children for the rest of their lives. Here are two examples: More than 70% of girls, starting as young as third grade, are unhappy with their bodies. Many report dieting by age 12. Boys, in contrast, are much happier with their bodies. Combine those statistics with the studies showing that girls who were asked to play with Barbies have worse body image after a brief play period compared to girls who were asked to play with normally-proportioned dolls. Girls who watch sexualized media also feel worse about their bodies and, by adolescence, are more likely to agree with the idea that girls who get abused by their boyfriends were asking for it. So parents who buy Barbies and let their children watch cable TV without supervision need to know the impact those experiences have on their daughters’ views of themselves. Boys have a different set of biases that affect them. For boys, there is overwhelming evidence that violent video games lead to more aggressive and violent behavior. These links have been shown with clear experiments where we can say that the video games can cause changes in behavior. These video games are heavily marketed to boys and combine violence with sexual content and sexual violence. Combine this with the stereotype that boys are not allowed to show sadness or weakness, instead they are told “to man up” and “boys don’t cry”. So we teach them to not show sadness or fear, but reinforce violence and aggression. Boys then enter adulthood ill-equipped to handle the full range of human emotion. Research from developmental neuroscience further tells us that these experiences we have in childhood can lead to changes to the brain’s wiring. Reinforcing one type of behavior over and over (liking playing a violent game) will ultimately make those neural pathways stronger and harder to fight against in the future.

This is why it is so very important. Play and media shape how our children view the world and themselves. Thousands of research studies show this. These experiences in childhood alter our adulthood in profound ways. When those experiences are biased by gender stereotypes, children develop in ways that are limited by out-dated societal expectations, not by what best for our children.

What impact does marketing have on the way we view children and gender roles?

Marketing plays a huge role. Even bigger than most parents think. Studies show that if I give a child a new toy, one they have never seen before, and tell them it is a girl’s toy, the girls will love playing with it and the boys will reject it. If I give the exact same toy to another group of children, only this time tell them that it is a boy’s toy, the boys will love playing with it and the girls will reject it. The toy was exactly the same; the only difference was how it was marketed. Children know who toys are targeted for. They know by 2 1/2 years old. If it is marketed to girls (by being pink, by having pictures of only girls playing with it on the box, or by being sold in the girls’ aisles at the toy store), boys will reject it.

The same works for toys marketed to boys. The real problem then is that even parents who try to buy diverse toys run up against toy companies that market toys for only girls or only boys. Children take this information and run with it. When children are given toys without such heavy, gender-based marketing, children show very few differences in the toys they will play with. But children are very active in how they create and enact gender stereotypes, and they pay attention to “this is for girls” and “this is for boys.” They want to do what is right for their gender, their “team.” This leads them to treat each other very differently. They want to be separated and segregated, because we have taught them that boys and girls are so very different that they can’t possibly have anything in common.  The more they segregate themselves, and the more we allow them to segregate, the more different they eventually become.

How does the sexualisation of children in the media factor in all of this?

The sexualization of children is a major concern. Sexualized images of girls are reaching younger and younger. It is very difficult to avoid these toys and these media images. Bratz dolls are the classic example. There is a lot of research about how this damages children. Girls feel worse about their bodies and have lower self-esteem after exposure to sexualization, and boys and girls develop more negative stereotypes about one another after viewing these images. It also puts a weird focus on behaviors that are reserved for adults and adolescents. To assume that boys and girls are interested in one another sexually before they reach puberty is simply not how children think.

Many parents seem to misunderstand the concept of raising kids without gender stereotypes, feeling threatened by this concept. There seems to be a misconception that this will mean a world of beige, where gender neutral equates to bland androgynous children. That something (pink, barbie, trucks) will be taken away, rather than options being opened up for children. What is it you think parents misunderstand or feel threatened by when it comes to the idea of challenging stereotypes?

This idea goes beyond raising children. As adults, many people think that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
I agree that parents often push back against the idea of raising kids without gender stereotypes. I think they envision “neutral” children where everyone is the same. A popular sitcom even joked that gender neutral children would all be forced to wear burlap for clothes. This idea goes beyond raising children. As adults, many people think that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Some people think that boys and girls (and men and women) are so very different from each other that to ignore gender, we are ignoring a key part of who someone is. We think we can better understand someone if we factor in their gender. But the reality is quite different. Individual children naturally differ from one another. In fact, science shows us that there are more differences between individual girls and between individual boys than there are between the “average” girl and “average” boy — in other words, John and Mark are going to differ from one another as much as John and Katie. Knowing someone’s gender actually tells us very little about what that person is like and what they are good at. This is based on research from hundreds of studies with more than one million children where they were looking for gender differences.

So parents may think that raising kids without gender stereotypes limits their children, pushing them all into a beige world. Really though it is pushing unique, distinct individual children into a pink box or a blue box that is limiting. I don’t advocate gender-neutral kids. I think we should make gender irrelevant, because focusing too much on gender distracts us from focusing on our children’s individuality.

We really need to do away with the assumption that boys and girls are drastically different from one another and acknowledge the scientific reality that individual children differ from one another much more, and their worlds should be as individualized as they are rather than simply driven by gender.

If parents were to adopt just three actions as a starting point towards raising healthy, well balanced children free of gender stereotypes, what should they be?

Gender marketing amplifies the idea of gender difference by compressing children’s diverse interests and preferences into two narrow, stereotype-laden boxes. So I would start with:

1. Stop using gender to label children, to sort children, and to guide purchases for children. No more “What a smart girl!” comments and boys-only birthday parties.

2. Correct children whenever they make a stereotypical comment, no matter how minor. Stop statements like “Boys are gross!” and “Girls can’t play basketball!,” because this type of group-based thinking is limiting. Instead, point out the variation. Parents can say, “Some girls can’t play basketball, but some girls can. Just like some boys play basketball, but some can’t. Think about Lisa Leslie. She can dunk a basketball”.

3. Remember that all toys and all media are educational — they teach children how to interact with the world and help them practice the skills they will use in adulthood. Toys should foster the traits you want your child to develop, regardless of gender. All children should have toys that foster nurturance, empathy, and perspective taking like dolls, fine motor skills and spatial skills — like building toys and puzzles- and hand-eye coordination like ball toys. No children should have toys that model unattainable bodies like Barbies or foster violence and aggression like guns. Go edit the toy closet and donate or throw away the toys that don’t reinforce positive traits and skills.

In addition, the increasingly-gendered offerings heighten the rewards of conforming to gender stereotypes and amplify the costs of not doing so. Children who do defy the dictates of gender-marketing often experience painful social sanctions from their peers or from adults. There are far too many stories of children being bullied or taunted for selecting toys that are perceived as gender non-conforming.

I ask everyone I interview this same question… If you had a magic wand, what would you change in relation to children and gender stereotypes and why?

I would make gender no more important than height or hair color for guiding our assumptions about what children are like.


Christia Spears Brown

Find out more about Dr Christia Spears Brown on her website http://drchristiabrown.com/
You can also follow her on Twitter @ChristiaBrown

Post By Thea Hughes (19 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and to found Play Unlimited. As a parent, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.



  1. steph says:

    I found this really interesting and has opened my mind up to the belief that males and females are not that different because of their gender, but because of their own individuality. This is so positive and freeing for me in my occupation as I do not need to feel constrained in how I teach the children in my care. So much of their ‘gender’ has actually come from external influences and behaviours, not something that is in their DNA. Well done and thank you for your good work!

  2. […] Dr Christia Spears Brown, author of Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue, contends that […]

  3. Henry Rahe says:

    I am writing a speech on the effect of sexism on children and this article was full of great information! I completely agree with your position and think that having different colors for the same toy is ridiculous.

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