Abbie E. Goldberg
In today’s society, parents and educators are increasingly realizing the benefits of playing with all kinds of toys. That is, a preschool-aged boy who happily investigates a toy kitchen is less likely to be chastised by his teacher or parents than in decades past. Likewise, a preschool-aged girl who plays intently with a toy truck is less likely to be scolded or redirected to playing with a doll. Of course, some parents still feel uncomfortable with their children’s gender nonconformity — particularly their sons’. A boy snuggling with a doll is not universally accepted as a sign of healthy development, and may create anxiety for some parents.
Yet, still, gender norms and roles for boys and girls, and for men and women, have become increasingly less rigid. Related to this, there is an increasing understanding that restricting the types of toys that children play with may limit their ability to develop skills and interests, and also to develop into well-rounded human beings.
In a recent investigation of preschool-aged children of first-time adoptive parents (44 lesbian- parent families, 34 gay-parent families, and 48 heterosexual-parent families), my colleagues and I found that the children of same-gender parents were less gender stereotyped (more flexible) in their play behavior than the children of heterosexual parents. So, the play behavior of boys and girls raised by lesbian parents and gay male parents was less gender-typed than the play behavior of boys and girls raised by heterosexual parents: they played with a more even “mix” or balance of “feminine-typed” toys and activities (dolls, dress up) and “masculine-typed” toys and activities (trucks, sports). Further, I found that the sons of lesbian mothers engaged in slightly less stereotypically masculine play behavior (e.g., trucks, sports, guns) than sons of gay fathers and heterosexual parents.
What does this mean, and why does it matter? First, it suggests that same-sex parents may facilitate their children’s exploration of a wider range of toys and activities, by creating an environment where their sons and daughters have greater access to, and are unlikely to be chastised for playing with, toys that are stereotypically “girl toys” and “boy toys” respectively. Heterosexual parents, in contrast, may tend to create an environment that is somewhat more discouraging of gender-atypical behavior and interests, possibly because such behavior — particularly among boys — is sometimes seen as a precursor or indication of homosexuality. Such concerns, though, may keep them from embracing their children’s full range of interests, or supporting their children in developing a wide range of skills and abilities.