So, should boys just play with tractors and girls with dollies?
As shops come under pressure to change their gender labelling of toys, Linda Stewart reveals how her little daughter Neve loves playing with a tool kit and asks other parents do they choose pink or blue?
Once upon a time when I was little, Santa arrived at our door, handing out presents. I was thrilled when I unwrapped mine to find a red truck – and then infuriated when I was forced to swap with my brother who had received a doll made of wooden clothes pegs.
Nowadays, despite the advances made by women in the workplace, the divisions between children in the toy shop go deeper than ever. Everything is colour-coded pink or blue – and in separate aisles.
Take a glance along the shelves and you'd be forgiven for thinking little girls are being groomed for careers of domestic drudgery, with the plethora of pink vacuum cleaners and ironing boards.
But parents have been fighting back, naming and shaming the stores that have been labelling the likes of chemistry sets and construction toys as 'boys toys'. A new campaign called Let Toys Be Toys (LTBT) is battling to persuade retailers to stop labelling some toys as only suitable for girls and others only for boys. The group says children should be free to play with whatever toys interest them most and is calling on the likes of Boots and Tesco to follow in the footsteps of Harrods offshoot Toy Kingdom and display merchandise by theme or function, instead of gender.
An LTBT survey carried out by undercover shoppers revealed that toolkits were 10 times more likely to be promoted to boys than girls and construction toys three times more likely. It's no wonder that only 8.7% of professional engineers in the UK are women.
Meanwhile, chemistry sets are twice as likely to be marketed to boys. Personal grooming sets are six times as likely to be promoted to girls and cleaning sets four times as likely.
Does it matter, though? Surely don't you carve out a path in life based on your character and regardless of what you played with as a child?
'Neve really loves her workbench and tools'
My two-year-old Neve loves tucking herself up in bed with her dolls and feeding them drinks of water. She adores the tea set she got for her birthday, serving us cups of tea and trying to feed us with the little plastic spoons.
But she also really revels in the My First Black & Decker workbench we found on sale, complete with plastic nails, screws that can be screwed into the worktop and hammer.
She's always figuring out new ways of carrying the nails around with the wrench and demands we come and help her with her latest project.
Don't get me wrong, I love to see her copying what goes on in her world – whether it's vacuuming the hall, wiping down her high chair tray or changing her dolls' nappies.
But I don't ever want her to feel that science or engineering is a closed shop just because advertisers have told her it's 'boys' stuff'.
And after chatting to other parents about how they feel, it actually seems like it's probably easier these days for girls to play with 'boy's things' than vice versa.
We all know it's perfectly fine for a little boy to copy his dad's parenting by changing the nappy on his sister's doll. I've even heard of a male toddler 'breastfeeding' his teddy bear in creche – copying the world he sees around him.
But even the most progressive parents may still feel a twinge of unease when their little boy starts showing too much of an interest in dolls, fearful that it may be more than a passing phase and that he could end up facing a miserable childhood at the hands of bullying classmates who are quick to judge and classify someone as different.
‘My son will probably end up playing with dolls’
PR consultant Sheelagh Wright (38), from east Belfast, is married to Andrew. They have three children, Rebecca (4), Ella (3) and Benjamin |(4 months). She says:
The girls are into everything at the moment — they are loving playing with outside toys like slides and trampolines. But everything has to be pink.
They were always into their dolls but they will say ‘I won’t play with that train — it’s a boys’ toy’.
Or they don’t want to watch Mike the Knight because they think it’s a boys’ programme.
I don’t encourage it, but it could be that up until now there haven’t been any boys in the house and if they ever get presents of toys, people tend to give them the girls’ versions of everything.
It’s strange having Benjamin now because everything in our house is quite pink and you would feel strange pushing him down the street on a pink pushbike — it’s like ‘Are we going to have to get everything again in blue?’
The girls like non-gender specific toys too, things like Lego and building blocks. They’re both quite arty too, and like to paint or draw or play with Play-Doh.
I wasn’t particularly impressed that these big stores were labelling chemistry sets and science-based things very much as boys’ toys.
I have a young niece who is very interested in science and dinosaurs and things like that. If you won’t buy something based on that labelling, she would miss out on the things she’s most interested in. I wouldn't like my girls having that thrust upon them.
I can understand that if people are looking for toys for gifts, they don’t always know what children aged 2-3 would be into. But I wouldn’t like to think my children were excluded from science.
I think Benjamin will probably end up having to play a lot with dolls because there are a lot here! In nursery I’ve noticed that all the boys are playing house and dressing dolls and the girls are all playing with dinosaurs.
It’s probably because they don’t have those toys at home and it’s the novelty of having something different.
I wouldn’t be bothered too much by it, though.
'We shouldn't push the differences too early'
Cameron Watt (37) is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) and lives in Belfast. He is married to Ann and their son Euan is two-and-a-half. He says:
Euan is obsessed with food. Meals are the highlight of his day. He's got his own utensils and pretend food like burgers and vegetables, and he loves making 'meals' with them. I suppose these toys are fairly gender neutral.
He also loves anything to do with mechanical things such as dumper trucks and cars – and he loves Thomas the Tank Engine and that sort of thing.
Euan also likes playing with his teddy and other soft toys and that is perfectly normal for a toddler.
It does seem that with boys there is more interest in mechanical things that make a big noise – although we don't have a girl so we've no comparison. I don't think we should be pushing the differences in kids too early. Toys could be marketed more at girls and boys together, although I think that naturally boys and girls will gravitate toward different types of toys when they are a bit older.
Even with construction toys such as Lego there are particular ranges of Duplo that is specifically targeted at girls – such the Cinderella Castle.
But generally Lego would be seen as being for both – it wouldn't be as successful if boys and girls didn't both love it.
Euan goes to the toddler group at the local church. There are loads of boys' and girls' toys so he can play with just about anything he wants. Without being pushed towards them, he almost always chooses the boy toys.
Maybe toy-makers are too keen to push separate products for boys and girls.
I want Euan, and all children, to be able to play with a wide range of toys with both boys and girls.
'It just limits the child's imagination'
Hazel Pearson (27) from Ballyclare is married to Justin. They have two children, Ollie (3) and Leonie (1). She says:
Ollie is a real little boy at the moment and is into Spiderman, Iron Man and Fireman Sam. He also likes anything to do with building and construction, although sometimes he also really enjoys playing with Leonie's dolls.
He's been known to pick them up and start wrapping the baby up and feeding it and saying 'Shh, the baby's sleeping'.
We went to see the film Iron Man recently and Ollie wanted to take the baby with us!
But otherwise he's like most little boys and very into all his action toys.
I'm far from being a feminist but I think in this day and age Leonie would play with Ollie's cars and action toys and girls in general will be playing and interested in the same sort of things that boys would be.
It's seems to be more of a taboo for a boy to be playing with something girly. When Ollie's playing with the doll he's mimicking what his dad does with his little sister – it's all just a learning curve,
I don't think it should be toys for girls and for boys. That to me is an old-fashioned stigma and limits the child's imagination.
I would like to see them classified into the category of what kind of toys they are, such as construction toys or imaginative play.
What's the toy story at shops?
A snapshot survey carried out by Let Toys Be Toys showed many stores, including Sainsbury's, Hamley's and Early Learning Centre, were managing to display and sell toys without gender labelling. The worst offenders were Asda, TK Maxx, Wilkinson's, The Entertainer and Marks & Spencer.
Since then, Tesco have said they are removing all gender labels from toys on their website.
Boots have agreed to remove 'boys toys' and 'girls toys' signs in stores and Asda have removed website gender categories.
The Entertainer have announced that they will be replacing 'girls toys' and 'boys toys' signs with thematic headings such as 'Construction' and 'Arts and Crafts' in all stores by Christmas time.
Next also acknowledged that labelling all their Christmas toys 'Boys' stuff' was 'misleading' and promised to come up with better categories for next year.
Hobbycraft have promised to replace their 'Kits for girls' and 'Kits for boys' signs with 'Kits for kids'.