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Believe it or not, this is many little girls’ worst nightmare. Photograph: Cultura RM / Alamy/Alamy

Why do marketers get to decide what toys are right for our children?

One Thursday morning, my husband, daughter and I did what any family expecting a new little bundle of joy would do: dashed off to Target to find the remaining things left on our list of “things to pack our house with so that we’re not running short on anything once the Special Little Guy arrives.” We wandered through the aisles, looking at portable cribs, towels and blankets galore, giddy with excitement at the thought of envisioning a beautiful little face with deep brown eyes wrapped in our arms with these bright fabrics.

While there, my eight-year-old daughter reached out, pulled out a pink pack of blankets and asked if we could get them for her new baby brother. I looked at my husband, whose face had the same expression mine did: a slowly growing smile. We both figured she’d just picked out something she liked for herself – kids that age are self-centered enough to do that – and figured buying it would be more for her than the new arrival.

She, however, didn’t take our smiles lightly.

“What, he can’t have it because it’s pink?”

The sound that came out of me was less than a scoff, closer to choking on my own air from being checked by a child.

“I’m sorry, what?”

She went on. “Why is it that all the boys get the blue stuff? I like blue stuff! And look – dinosaurs! Why don’t the pink things have dinosaurs? Why do the boys only get dinosaurs?”

By this point, my eyebrows had hit the ceiling. I was impressed by her awareness of the world around her, but this was still a child with a question who was expecting an answer.

I don’t think raising girls is harder than raising boys – it’s just different. We message to children, at very young ages, the values we want them to hold as they grow. Seeing a “boys” aisle full of action figurines, cars and engineering kits juxtaposed against a “girls’” aisle of dolls, kitchen sets, food and baby strollers sends a clear message: “this is for me, and that is for you.” Unfortunately, we exist in a world where people rarely unlearn this.

My daughter falls outside these boxes. She hates schoolwork … unless it involves engineering. She doesn’t want your worksheets about pointing out the parts of bridges – she wants to build suspension bridges out of popsicle sticks and yarn, so that she has a live demo to use to tell you what each part is and what it does. She doesn’t want to listen to someone talk about the trains that power our city – she wants to build a live version of a train station using Legos, complete with stairs and makeshift signal lights.

Speaking of Legos, she once felt very conflicted by her love of them – she felt no attraction to the pre-made kits for Barbie and her car, street and shopping center, instead opting for the very flat, generic kit structured in primary colors. She relished the ability to build fire-breathing T-rexes with helicopter rotors on their head, or massive iterations of Tails, Sonic the Hedgehog’s nerdily helpful co-star.

This often leaves her grappling with a dichotomy she doesn’t understand. She sometimes walks down the aisles of toy stores and feels like she doesn’t belong in the Barbie section, because “that stuff’s for girls, and I like boy things.” Other kids at school told her that she was “like a boy” because she played with those “boy things”. When asked how she felt about hearing that, she said that she “just [tries] not to think about it.”

Children are small people learning and growing into their own, with complex and unique understandings of what makes them happy. My daughter – despite owning many dolls and books about ballerinas, many shiny and sparkly garments and other glittery, stereotypically girlish fare – would much rather build a skyscraper out of Legos or read about how to expand her game play on the coding app Hopscotch. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier about it.

The interests and careers that are heavily dominated by women are among the most devalued in modern society. The teaching for young girls starts young. They’re often discouraged from the toys that actually encourage an interest in science, technology, engineering and math, instead opting for things that encourage an early interest in beauty or fashion, two spaces fraught with damaging imagery and limited learning opportunities for young girls. Add to it the dearth of toys depicting non-white children, or children who are differently-abled, and the issues multiply.

Our experience in Target, unbeknownst to us, just happened to go down within days of Target’s public announcement that they were removing the gender-based labeling within their toy, home and entertainment sections. When I asked my husband how he felt about the change and some of the negative responses to it, he shrugged.

“Do they think that it’s best that marketing machines tell them what’s best for their children?”

And, with that conversation, it became clearer to me. I don’t want anyone telling me what’s best for my children, or what they should have based on some outward characteristic. I want my children’s unique learning styles to guide their interests and desires, especially since everything we’ve learned in parenting our first child tells us that kids will find their own way regardless of what is forced upon them.

Furthermore, if my children – both as children and as adults – encounter someone whose interests differ from their own, even as their genders might be similar, I wouldn’t want them to feel comfortable criticizing others for being different – harassing and devaluing them in the workplace, all because they’re not used to expecting “that kind” of competence from “that kind” of person.

The argument shouldn’t be about upholding gender standards in marketing – it should be about wondering why we were lazy enough to believe this was a store’s responsibility in the first place. The stores don’t raise our children. We do.

When my daughter asked about the pink dinosaurs, I nodded and said, “You’re absolutely right – they really should make dinosaurs in all colors.” As for the blankets she suggested, we passed, but only because we already had plenty.

But as we arrived at home, she darted off to her room, only to emerge 20 minutes later with her own baby blanket, pink and covered in blue and green and orange dots, gifted to her by my mother.

“Can my baby brother have this?”

Absolutely.

Erika Nicole Kendall writes about parenting, health, nutrition and body image both across the web and on her personal website.

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