Gender-Appropriate Play

There’s been some controversy around a recent J.Crew ad that has generated a lot of chatter about gender-appropriate play for kids, and what role parents should have in defining those boundaries. The ad featured their style director painting her son’s toenails pink, and included some text about how lucky she felt to have a son who doesn’t live in fear of the delicate color.

As we discussed this topic on the CBS Early Show this week, Erica Hill asked me if we assign gender-based play patterns to our kids – meaning, do we tell my son he shouldn’t play with my daughters toys and vice versa. Absolutely not. In fact, as I write this, my 3-year old son is sitting next to me playing his sister’s Barbie game on our iPad. He doesn’t care about the pink flashing hearts…but he does care about beating his sister’s score – and that’s perfectly natural. It’s called “modeling”…it’s how kids learn through play and replicate the world around them, which is largely dominated by their parents and siblings. Sometimes that involves yelling into a toy cell phone as they pretend to be Mom (shame on me…), playing dress up with their siblings, and even lying on the couch, fake snoring to be like Dad (sorry, Hun!).

Children begin to explore their own identity in many ways very early on, but preschool years seem to be the most active in terms of exploring through play. However, most children don’t begin to gender differentiate until the age of four, when their views and confidence about their own gender role begin to take shape. Once they grow older and begin socializing with peer groups, the contributing factors multiply exponentially to include people and influences outside of the home. A parenting window of time that my brother has taken to calling the “Good Luck Years”, as luck is the best tool in your arsenal.

As a parent, I’m more focused on teaching my children acceptance, as that lesson will go much farther than trying to create buckets by which they can categorize others and themselves. I agree with Dr. Bartell’s comment in the segment that we should be focused on making our kids into good people, with good friends and family at the center of all of their exploration. Easier said than done, of course, but still a worthy goal.

As I sign off now, my son and daughter have pillows under their pajamas…pretending to be pregnant like a woman we saw on the street today. They were relieved to remove the pillows to gain better access to their cookies and milk. That’s not quite how pregnancy really works…but that’s why they call it “pretend play”.

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