Why Toys Are More Gendered Than Ever — And What Parents Can Do About It Toys are more pink and blue than ever before, experts say. But before you ban the sparkle unicorns and foam-dart blasters, consider other ways to help kids expand their play possibilities.

Sparkle Unicorns And Fart Ninjas: What Parents Can Do About Gendered Toys

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the next few minutes, we're going to talk about toys - not just for kids. We're going to explore whether what we play with as kids and how we play with those toys actually shapes who we become as adults. NPR's new parenting podcast, Life Kit For Parents With Sesame Workshop, has taken a deep dive into the toy bin. It is hosted by NPR education reporters Cory Turner and Anya Kamenetz, and they join me now.

Hi, guys.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Toys - we're talking about toys.

TURNER: (Laughter) We're going to talk about toys.

MARTIN: Talk about toys. I don't know. I've got a lot of opinions about the toys that my kids play with (laughter).

KAMENETZ: You do?

MARTIN: I do (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Good or bad?

MARTIN: I know you're not supposed to. Well, I just - you know, there are some things that they reach for - say, the thing that looks like a fake gun or a toy I might not think is appropriate - and I do a little cringe. So I'm...

KAMENETZ: Yep.

MARTIN: ...Hoping you're going to give me some answers here.

TURNER: Well, I have to be honest, Rachel. The toy gun angle is the reason I got interested in the subject, absolutely. My boys both wanted toy guns. And I wasn't really wild about the toy guns, and my wife wasn't either. And we...

MARTIN: Right.

TURNER: ...Were scratching our heads.

KAMENETZ: So Cory was like, let's do an episode about toy guns.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: And was like, wait a second. I've got two girls. There's no guns in my house.

MARTIN: Right (laughter).

KAMENETZ: That's not even an issue. But I have a daughter who just started to dress herself. And all she wants to do is wear five tutus at the same time.

MARTIN: I mean, that's not necessarily a horrible thing. Right? Some girls really like princesses. And there are things that are magical and endearing about princess culture.

TURNER: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: Well, that's exactly right. So that was exactly the journey we went on because it was like - well, are we - is it just our personal taste? You know, where do we actually draw the line? And that's why we went to the toy fair in New York.

MARTIN: The toy fair in New York - OK.

TURNER: One of the biggest toy fairs in the world.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: That sounds awesome.

TURNER: Oh, it was pretty awesome. Here - let's take a listen, and you will hear the awesomeness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: That is the Barbie gallery.

UNIDENTIFIED TOY COMPANY REPRESENTATIVE #1: We have our official 60th Anniversary Barbie.

UNIDENTIFIED TOY COMPANY REPRESENTATIVE #2: It's got a rotating barrel, and it's full auto. So kids just load up the belt, power on and shoot away.

MARTIN: So what'd you learn here?

KAMENETZ: Toys, in some ways, have not changed in terms of how gendered they are. One researcher found, by looking through toy catalogs, that they are just as gendered - or even more gendered in some cases - than they were 50 years ago.

MARTIN: All right. So this problem isn't getting any better with time - clearly. What are the repercussions of this? What did you find out about what this means, how it affects us and our kids?

TURNER: That's what we wanted to know, too. We weren't sure where to go for answers. Luckily, though, we crossed paths with a gender studies professor at Monmouth University who studies this very question. Her name is Lisa Dinella.

LISA DINELLA: I actually study superheroes and princesses.

KAMENETZ: And Lisa started studying these pop culture characters because she was originally interested in how people choose careers.

TURNER: But she traced the origins of those choices all the way back to early childhood and to playtime.

KAMENETZ: And that's how she found that what our kids play with and how they play with it can be reflected in the people they grow up to be - for good and for not so good.

TURNER: So here is an example of the not so good. So a few years back, Lisa and her colleagues surveyed women in college.

DINELLA: Shockingly, we found that 33 percent of our undergraduate women in our sample said that they identified themselves as princesses.

TURNER: Now, that's not inherently bad. But these princesses, they also had a few other things in common, a kind of princess mindset.

KAMENETZ: They were more likely to say that they value their mate's physical attractiveness and earning power.

TURNER: And not only that...

DINELLA: They said that they were less likely to want to enter the workforce after college.

KAMENETZ: But here's the clincher. When all the women in the study were given a series of puzzles to measure their persistence...

DINELLA: The princesses actually quit faster than the women that said that they were not princesses.

TURNER: Now, the study doesn't prove that little girls dressing up like Snow White are all going to grow up to be passive and weak.

KAMENETZ: But it does hint that all this glossy pink pretty, pretty princess stuff might be kind of like a poisoned apple.

ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: It's OK for me to like pink things and pretty things and frilly things, but it shouldn't define what I will be in the future.

TURNER: That's Rosemarie Truglio. She's a developmental psychologist and senior VP of education and research at Sesame Workshop.

KAMENETZ: And she says it's not just toys. Books, movies, ads, apps, adults, even other kids - they're all sending powerful messages to children across the gender spectrum about who they're expected to be.

TURNER: Yeah. So in another of Lisa Dinella's studies, she asked preschoolers to describe themselves and to describe what they knew about princesses.

KAMENETZ: They gave the pretty typical idea of a girly girl who needs to be rescued.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME DAY MY PRINCE WILL COME")

ADRIANA CASELOTTI: (Singing) Someday my prince will come.

TURNER: But then the researchers showed the children video clips of more recent princess characters who are taking action and being more powerful.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALADDIN")

LINDA LARKIN: (As Jasmine) How dare you - standing around deciding my future? I am not a prize to be won.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRAVE")

KELLY MACDONALD: (As Merida) I am Merida. And I'll be shooting for my own hand.

(GASPING)

KAMENETZ: Afterwards, they asked all the kids the same questions again. And it turned out...

TURNER: Both the preschool girls and the boys described themselves as being more multi-dimensional.

DINELLA: They will say that I am strong, I am a leader. But they'll also say - I take care of people, and I share.

KAMENETZ: So what this small study is suggesting is that kids - no matter where they are on the gender spectrum, no matter how they identify - can benefit from spending time with characters who are more complex. As Rosemarie from Sesame puts it...

TRUGLIO: If you could see it, you could play it. And then one day, you could be it.

KAMENETZ: And that's the kind of transformation story we can all believe in.

MARTIN: OK. So there are some signs that things are changing. Bottom line, though - what all parents listening to this want to know is, what's the takeaway for parents?

KAMENETZ: You know, one of the main reframers for me was that, as parents, we really do have the power to help our kids expand their possibilities in play, and we should use that power.

TURNER: Yeah. And one of the things that I learned early on that really surprised me is when your child wants a toy that you're not wild about, very rarely does it help to just ban the toy (laughter)...

MARTIN: Right.

TURNER: ...You know, disappear it or...

MARTIN: It actually never works (laughter).

TURNER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Cory Turner and Anya Kamenetz - they are co-hosts of the new podcast Life Kit For Parents With Sesame Workshop. You can find that podcast at npr.org/lifekit or at applepodcasts.com/lifekit.

You guys, thank you so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you so much, Rachel.

TURNER: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "TETRO")

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