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Gender Construction and Child’s Play Essay

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Updated: Jun 20th, 2020

Adult discourse on toys often dwells on the notion of discoursing on gender difference. Toys are over sexualised by parents, media, toy-makers, scholars, teachers, etc. to disseminate an early lesson on gender difference to children. Thus, boys play with toys made and marketed for them and girls play with indoor toys like Barbie. Gendering of colour, sports, clothes, television shows, and toys are a few example of areas of adult discourse on young minds. Selective and controlled exposure of children to media and television viewing helps to construct a gender specific view about toys and games.

A child’s growth and movement are controlled and observed through the panopticon system that allows adults to carve their preferences and gender specific ideals. This deliberate attempt to control a child’s personal space applies to determining what toys they play with. Adults have a strong influence on the gender construct and the nature of socialisation that a child engages in, therefore, defining their idea of play (Witt 1997).

Parents influence their children to play or not to play with Barbie dolls has great impact on defining the children’s sense of gender role, and socialisation (Rand 1995). Parents begin a process of creating gender role through specific construct right from the time children are aware of gender and gender differences (Kane 2013). Adult’s idea of children and childhood, gender roles, and socialisation has a strong influence on the children’s play.

This essay puts forth the argument that adult ideas of childhood, gender, and socialisation frame the meanings of children’s play, particularly with reference to Barbie dolls. This is done in three sections: first deals with the adult influence in creating constructs of gender and therefore play/game among children, second discusses the gender role and influence of children’s desire to play with Barbie dolls, and third describe the roll of socialisation in influencing children’s desire to play with Barbie dolls.

Adult Influence on Children’s Play

Parental influence on children’s behaviour, play orientation, and psychological development has been well documented by scholars. The first relevant book that should be discussed in order to understand the influence of parents on framing children’s exposure to popular culture is that by Katherine McDonald. McDonnell (2000, p. 16) tries to explain the challenges that parents go through while trying to understand their children’s needs.

In the book, McDonald points out that many parents always struggle to guide their children through the path that they believe will make them successful in life. Witt (1997) points out that a child’s first exposure to gender and gender roles is through the parents. Parents even treat a girl child differently from a boy child (Witt 1997). Witt (1997) argues that parents have a strong influence on children’s gender-specific activities such as playing with dolls for girls and sports activities for boys. Hence, parents create a gender-specified demarcation between a girl and boy child.

In understanding the childhood of their children, adults often face a problem that arises when they realize that their children do not share their approach of thinking. According to McDonald (1994), it is not possible for a child to think like an adult. In this context, McDonald argues that a conflict arises when a parent tries to impose his or her worldview on the child. According to McDonald, a parent may want to regulate what a child views for fear that their minds may be polluted.

Other parents struggle to identify the kind of toys that their children may find most interesting. While some parents feel that they are failing to give their children what they need to experience a positive development, others always feel that their children are demanding more than they should have at their tender age. Clearly, McDonald stresses on the impact of parental control on younger children and points out that in most cases, the parents make decisions regarding the child’s toy preference.

Other authors like Kane (2006) believes that parents have a strong influence in constructing gender of their children in creating a gender identity among them. The influence of parents in defining the childhood pastime of children is abundantly described in their effort to monitor and define their television viewing. McDonald (1994) points out that parents in their attempt to define kid culture often find themselves in a dilemma when it comes to allowing their children to watch violent movies. This causes a moral panic among the parents.

Parents are not unanimous about the influence of Barbie as a toy for children. Some believe that Barbie dolls have a positive influence on children while other others believe that they have a bad influence on children. The bad effect of Barbie is believed to be negative impact on body image and gender roles, are usually voiced by parents and scholars. Thus, adults perceive a child’s toy to play a complicated role in moulding the child. Hence, they conceive children to view and perceive things the way adults do. For instance, Rand (1995) points out in the beginning of her book that she was herself never allowed to play with a Barbie doll and her mother never bought one for her. This narration demonstrates the adult’s perception of a child’s world.

Further, adults often believe that boys playing with Barbie dolls are ‘queer’ or gay (Rand 1995). Thus, a degree of effeminacy is associated with boys playing with dolls, and more specifically Barbie dolls. If the argument that, boys who play with Barbie dolls are ‘queer’ is assumed true, there should not be any scope of alarm or panic due to this. However, by disassociating toys for boys and that for girls, adults have created a platform for segregation of the gender, leaving no space for the third gender to grow in the upbringing of the children.

Gender Construction and Child’s Play

Gendering a child’s identity is done even through the games children play. Gender construction is paramount in the lives of children as their whole identity is based on their sex. Through a very simple exercise, McDonald (1994) shows that cartoons shown on television have more superheroes and few (almost zero) super-heroines. In the book, McDonald (1994) points out at the gender construct and segregation of gender roles in the cartoons watched by children.

She points out that in most of the cases, the heroes are male, subconsciously creating a discourse of the insignificance of a girl child. In other words, she implies that a girl child adheres to the popular gender roles in these cartoons thus, reducing the relevance of these cartoons to a girl child. Recently, there have been attempts to make some of these cartoons relevant to the girl child by introducing the heroines that they can easily identify with in these cartoons. However, McDonald (1994) points out that such introductions have created more defined gender roles.

Witt (1997) who studied gender construction specifically points out that the inference of parents in creating such distinction between toys for boys and that for girls is not uncommon. Witt (1997) argues that more girls’ rooms are painted pink and have dolls while boys rooms are painted in blue and are stuffed with cars, sports equipment, and tools. Thus, the adults in the family, who unsuspectingly define the gender of their children, decide the choice of toys made by children. Volkom (2003) believes that children usually emulate the behaviour of the adults who share their gender. Children use these observations then to shape their own behaviours.

Gender distinction is first discoursed and constructed through parents. Children internalize the gender discourse emitted by the parents more quickly than that by the outer world. The reason for this is due to their exposure to gender through parents who are the earliest connecting point with the outer world. They internalize gender from parents at a very early age and become acutely aware of the adult sex roles. Thus, Witt (1997) believes that children create their own gender expectations at a very early age and are often unmovable from their beliefs.

Gendering of toys was an essential fragment of differentiating girls from boys at an early age. Kane (2013) discusses the icons of femininity used to demarcate the toys of boys and girls. The notion of femininity in society was based on the presence and discourse of masculinity in society (Kane 2013). The usage of dolls, especially Barbie, as a symbol of femininity, with its long slender legs, and flowing blond hair, created an icon of femininity. Girls playing with Barbie, and essentially idolizing Barbie believed that the ideal feminine attributes lay in the physical demeanour of the doll. Further, in case of boys, parents usually hold a negative attitude towards boys wearing frilly or pink coloured clothes, thus, creating an image of masculinity that is imprinted in the mind of the children (Kane 2013).

Gender construct of adults are instilled on children, thus, creating gender identity among them. Children learn about gender difference at a very early age and participate in gender stereotyping due to their exposure to popular media, peers, and most importantly parents. Gender construct plays a strong role in the choice of game that children choose to play. Boys usually prefer to play with cars, tools, and outdoor sports while girls are more inclined towards playing with dolls like Barbie and engaging in domestic activity. This stark difference in game preference stems from the parental discourse.

Adult Idea of Socialisation

In the book Barbie’s Queer Accessories, Erica Rand points out that her mother would never allow her to play with Barbie dolls. Her reason for disapproving Barbie dolls was because she, like many other like-minded mothers, did not want her daughter to have “pointy-breasted teenager who literally couldn’t stand on her own two feet” (Rand 1995, p. 4). This effect of playing with Barbie dolls has been documented by many researchers who believe that this creates a body image idolization among adolescent girls who try to attain the Barbie-like figure which they pressure to be the perfect body-type (Kuther & McDonald 2004).

The study conducted by Kuther and McDonald (2004) presents a pervasive picture of boys and girls playing with Barbie. The researchers found that playing with Barbie dolls were a process for girls to “enact adult social scripts” while the boys was mostly engaged in “destructive play … disfiguring” the dolls (Kuther & McDonald 2004, p. 50).

Researchers have found a strong relationship between the parents’ belief of play and the socialisation skills of children. Social adaptation of children is derived from group play. Researchers believe parents have a strong influence in shaping this social skill of children. Parent’s perception of child play has a strong influence on the social competence of the child (Lin & Yawkey 2014).

Lin and Yawkey’s (2014) study demonstrates that parents with a positive attitude towards child’s play help in developing strong social competence in children. Hence, when parents have a positive perception of their child’s game, it helps to develop the child’s social skills. Intuitively one can assume that when parents are encouraging about the games that the children are playing helps in developing their social skills. Thus, when parents show approval towards gender-stereotyped games, children find it more comfortable to play with.

Adult influence on defining child’s game is immense. Adults create a concept of gender and gender defined games that children eventually adopt. Adult discourse creates the perception of Barbie as a toy for girls. Children adopt and imitate the perception and behaviour of adults and soon believe that Barbie dolls are specifically for girls and little boys, at a very early age, avoid playing with them. Due to the severity of the adult discourse, children often associate playing with Barbie as an effeminate trait among boys. Adult interference in children’s play and toy-choice robs them of their decision-making capability.

Choice of toys, therefore, influences the perception of gender role. Barbie dolls thus become a toy for girls. Hence, adult interference and influence specifically creates the concept of toys for boys and that for girls, thus, branding Barbie as a toy made for girls. Adults also include mass media and the manufactures of the toy who confirm to this concept of girls’ toy who specifically use gender discoursed colours and forms to make and promote the toy, thus associating it with the ideal of femininity. The moral panic over Barbie dolls only creates a generation of children who are crippled with the inability of independent decision-making faculty.

Reference List

Kane, EW 2013, ‘”No way my boys are going to be like that!” Parents’ responses to children’s gender nonconformity.” Gender & Society 20.2 (2006): 149-176.’, in Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain, Canadian Scholars’ Press, Toronto.

Kuther, TL & McDonald, E 2004, ‘Early Adolescents’ Experiences with, and Views of, Barbie’, Adolescence, vol 39, no. 153, pp. 39-51.

Lin, Y-C & Yawkey, TD 2014, ‘Parents’ Play Beliefs and the Relationship to Children’s Social Competence’, Education, vol 135, no. 1, pp. 107-114.

McDonnell, K 1994, Kid Culture: Children & Adults & Popular Culture, Second Storey Press, Toronto, Ontario.

Rand, E 1995, Barbie’s Queer Accessories, Duke University Press, London.

Volkom, MV 2003, ‘The Relationships Between Childhood Tomboyism, Siblings’ Activities, and Adult Gender Roles ‘, Sex Roles, vol 49, no. 11, pp. 609-618.

Witt, SD 1997, ‘Parental influence on children’s socialisation to gender roles’, Adolescence, vol 32, no. 126, pp. 253-259.

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