Parents may want their girls to grow up to be astronauts and their boys to one day do their fair share of child care and housework duties, but a new study suggests certain stereotypical gender preferences take root even before most kids can crawl.
When presented with seven different toys, boys as young as nine months old went for the car, digger and soccer ball, while ignoring the teddy bears, doll and cooking set. And the girls? You guessed it. At the same age, they were most interested in the doll, teddy bear and miniature pot, spoon and plastic vegetables.
"The boys always preferred the toys that go or move, and the girls preferred toys that promote nurturing and facial features," said study author Sara Amalie O'Toole Thommessen, an undergraduate at City University in London.
So does this mean that boys and girls have an innate preference for certain types of objects? Or does socialisation -- that is, the influence of parents and the larger culture -- impact children's choice of toys very early in life?
It's too soon to rule either out, said Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Centre in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University.
"One of the things we've learned about babies over the many years we've been studying them is that they are amazing sponges and learn an awful lot in those nine months," Gilliam said.
How the latest study was done
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in the "nature" versus "nurture" debate, and developmental researchers did plenty of research on gender differences in play. However, most studies were inconclusive and interest faded, Thommessen said.
At the same time, roles within the home were becoming more fluid, with fathers taking on more child care and women working more and at a greater variety of jobs outside the home, though the marketing of children's toys remained very stereotypical.
This latest study included 83 children aged nine months to three years who were observed playing for three minutes. The time they spent touching or playing with each object was noted.
Researchers chose the toys by surveying 300 adults about the first toy that came to mind when they thought of a boy or a girl. About 90 percent said "car" for boy and "doll" for girls, with the remainder mentioning the other toys.
Children were also offered both a pink teddy bear and a blue teddy bear. "We were quite interested to see if boys had a colour preference, but boys didn't show any interest in the teddy bears at all," Thommessen said.
Never underestimate socialisation
Gender-specific preferences became even more pronounced as the children got older. By about age 27 months to 36 months, girls spent about 50% of their time playing with the doll, and were no longer much interested in the teddy bear, which had interested them when they were younger, or any of the other objects. The boys spent 87% of their time with the car and digger, ignoring even the ball.
The finding raises the possibility of a biological basis for toy choices. A study from 2001 found even one-day-old boys spent longer looking at moving, mechanical options than one-day-old girls, who spent more time looking at faces.
Yet the impact of socialisation should never be underestimated, Gilliam said. Studies have shown parents and others interact differently with female and male babies from almost the instant they're born, Gilliam said.
Even when they're infants, fathers tend to encourage more active play with boy babies, by playfully tickling or poking them, while they tend to hold girl babies closer. Parents have also been observed spending more time talking to girls than to boys.
As they get older, studies have shown boys are encouraged to more actively explore their environment, while girls are encouraged to engage in quieter play.
"Even if your boy prefers playing with a truck, make sure you talk to him and teach him about nurturing," Gilliam said. "Even if a girl is playing with a doll, every once in a while throw her a ball or take her on a run. Expose them to all the different possibilities, and then let them choose."
And keep in mind just how much you may be dragging your own stereotypical notions into parenting.
What the study found
In the study, researchers found no association between parents' reported views on gender-appropriate toys for children, or parental roles at home, and the toys children chose. In other words, dads who did their share of housework and moms who held high-level jobs outside the home were just as likely to have girls who picked dolls and boys who picked cars and trucks.
But Gilliam remembers one family who brought their young son in to see him. There was an assortment of toys scattered on the floor, from which the boy chose a plastic figurine. "The mom said, 'Oh, he wants to play with dolls.' And the father replied, 'He's not playing with dolls. Those are action figures.'" - (HealthDay News, April 2010)