California Institutes Another Candyland Law
Letting kids be kids, rather than mandating costly laws and policies, is the best way to make children who do not engage in sex-typical play feel included.
To ring in the upcoming new year, the State of California will once again legally enshrine a Candyland belief. In this case Assembly Bill 1084 that requires retail stores that employ more than 500 people across the State to maintain gender neutral childcare and toy sections. Failure to do so will result in a $250 fine for the first violation and $500 fines for each subsequent one.
In an interview with the Associated Press, the bill’s author Assemblyman Evan Low stated, “Thankfully, my colleagues recognized the pure intentions of this bill and the need to let kids be kids.” Implicit in this statement and the bill itself is the belief that various social forces, boy- and girl-toy sections in this instance, conspire to create various sex differences, proscribing some activities as appropriate for girls and others for boys and never the twain shall meet.
The belief echoes nostrums offered by gender studies professors and activists, but these don’t often contact reality. An example is provided by an essay in the academic journal Sex Roles, in which Dinella and Weisgram argue that children’s toy preferences are largely driven by subtle gender-related messages (e.g., dolls are for girls, trucks for boys) that create sex differences in these preferences and in other interests. Although these beliefs are widely held, they don’t hold up to scrutiny.
In a meta-analysis (a standard method for combining results across studies) of sex-related stereotypes, Tenenbaum and Leaper concluded that there is a modest relation between parents’ and their children’s beliefs about these stereotypes, but at the same time “parents’ gender schemas had a negligible association with children’s gender related interests,” including toy preferences. Moreover, children raised by parents who actively discourage sex typing have children with less stereotyped beliefs, but their toy and play preferences do not differ from those of children raised by parents with stereotyped beliefs. In other words, parents can believe what they will, and children will pick up on some of these beliefs, but it doesn’t much change their actual play behavior and interests.
If we follow Low’s advice to “let kids be kids,” we’ll find that during the preschool years and into childhood there is very little overlap in boys’ and girls’ suites of play behavior, including differences in the frequency of engagement in rough-and-tumble play, team sports, and doll and family play, among others. There are of course exceptions, but the differences are large and primarily driven by the inherent interests of children themselves, not by socially imposed messaging.
A recent meta-analysis indicated that 99 out of 100 boys have a stronger preference for toy vehicles than does the average girl and girls’ relative preference for dolls is even larger. These differences are related, at least in part, to prenatal and early postnatal exposure to male hormones that masculinizes boys’ play behavior and toy preferences, although there also appear to be subtle social influences.
It seems that the intent of this bill is to make children who do not engage in sex-typical play feel included, but mandating potentially costly and likely ineffective laws and policies is not the way to achieve this. The strategy here is to foster inclusion by obscuring or eliminating the inherent biases of boys and girls to engage in different forms of play and social relationships, but human nature cannot be legislated into oblivion. The vast majority of children will engage in sex-typical play regardless of which aisle they find the most attractive toys.
Aside from costs to retailers, the most this will achieve is to further confuse parents who are trying to be inclusive and accommodating when all they need to do is let kids be kids, whatever their preferences.
David C. Geary is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Missouri.
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