developmental psychology

What the Science Says About Kids and Gender-Labeled Toys

Photo: Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Recently, Target announced that it would soon “phase out gender-based signage” in several areas of their stores, including, most notably, the toy aisle. “[W]e know that shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary,” goes the statement goes on the retailer’s website.  One of those guests, no doubt, is Abi Bechtel, who in June tweeted a photo of a sign at Target that differentiated between “Building Sets” and “Girls Building Sets.” Useful!

Predictably, in the week or so since Target made this announcement, a backlash has erupted, fueled in part by a post on the Facebook page of Franklin Graham — son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, and president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — which has been shared more than 50,000 times and “liked” more than 100,000 times. “I think Target may be forgetting who has made their stores strong,” Graham wrote. “It’s not gender-neutral people out there — it’s working American families, fathers and mothers with boys and girls they love.” Others — like psychotherapist Tom Kersting — expressed concern that the lack of boy-girl labeling would lead kids to “question what their gender is.”

All of which, said developmental psychologist Christia Brown, doesn’t square at all with what 30 years of social science on kids and gender-labeled toys has shown. The gender-confusion thing, first of all, is not something parents need to worry about. “That doesn’t hold up to the science,” said Brown, who teaches at the University of Kentucky and is the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue. “We know kids know their gender really early — they know it by about two years old.” As for the toys, the decision to remove gender labeling is in all likelihood a very good idea, in that it’s in line with what most the research suggests, she said. “This really shouldn’t be controversial, what Target’s done,” said Brown, who teaches at the University of Kentucky and is the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue. “Really, none of this is cutting-edge. It’s just now seeing the light of day in terms of the stores.”

In light of Target’s recent announcement, here’s a brief overview of some of the more widely respected findings in that area of research.

The science is pretty clear on the impact of gender labeling on toys. “Social scientists really agree pretty wholeheartedly on the effect of these kinds of gender labels on kids’ choices,” Brown said. “What they find is that the girls don’t want to touch it if it’s labeled a boy’s toy.” When the exact same toy is labeled as a girl’s toy, however, the girls are interested. Similar patterns have been observed in boys. In one study, published last year in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, preschool-age children preferred toys they’d never seen before when they were labeled according to their own gender. This was true even when the toys were given purposely confusing visual cues — for example, when handed a monster truck that had been painted pink, boys were more interested when it was labeled “for boys,” and girls were more interested when it was labeled “for girls.” 

Researchers call this the “hot potato effect.” The name comes from the 1987 observations of a psychologist name D. B. Carter: A young boy was “happily playing with a toy racing car until the helmet of the race car fell off, revealing a female with blonde hair. The boy then dropped the car like a ‘hot potato,’” writes Carol Lynn Martin of Arizona State University in a paper about her own work exploring this effect. She and her colleagues gave preschool-age children gender-neutral toys, like a flip-book or a Magnetix set, and asked the children to rate how much they enjoyed the toys; no clear trend emerged concerning toys the boys liked versus the ones the girls preferred. But in a second experiment, a different set of children were presented with the same toys, only half of them were taken out of a box labeled Girls and the other half out of a box labeled Boys. Sure enough, the girls were more interested in the girls’ toys, and the boys in the boys’ toys.

Not only does gender labeling impact the toys children like, it impacts the way they play with the toys. Brown also mentioned a classic study in which American kids were presented with a Canadian toy they’d never seen before. “It was like a clown, with an open mouth, and you threw little discs into its mouth,” she explained. Half of the kids were told it was a game usually meant for boys; the other half were told it was something that was normally intended for girls. And what they found, Brown said, was that the boys were better at the game when they believed the toy was for boys, and the girls did better when they thought it was a game meant for them. “For kids,” she said, “the label matters more than the toy.”

The Science of Kids and Gender-Labeled Toys