Why pink and blue toys can still harm girls and boys

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The battle over whether to sort children’s toys according to gender is about a lot more than dolls and blocks. A new study demonstrates that even at a very early age, labeling girls’ and boys’ things can make girls perform worse on certain tasks.

Published in the latest issue of the journal Sex Roles, this study tested a group of kindergarten-age kids in Hong Kong to see how easily they adopted gender-based color coding, and how that subsequently affected their cognitive performance. First, researchers told the experimental group of children that yellow was a girl’s color and green was a boy’s color. As expected, the children then gravitated toward toys of the color associated with their gender. Next, they had to complete a series of tangram puzzles with pieces that were also either yellow or green. In the control group, who were not told about gender-labeled colors, boys and girls completed the same number of puzzles within 10 minutes. But in the gender-label group, the boys completed more puzzles than the control group, and the girls completed fewer puzzles. This happened whether they were using yellow or green pieces.

“[Our findings] suggest that it is the exposure to gender labels or reminder of a gender divide per se, rather than whether a gender-appropriate or -inappropriate version was given to children, that had an impact on play performance,” the researchers wrote.

“If nothing else, it says there’s power in pointing out gender differences,” Christia Brown, a professor of developmental and social psychology at the University of Kentucky and the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The problem with stereotypes is kids are their own worst enemies. If you label it, even in a seemingly benign way, kids extrapolate that. It triggers them thinking about gender, and it leads to consequences that extend far beyond the labeling.”

To many, and possibly to the kids in this experiment, the tangram puzzles are not gender-neutral but rather a more boy-oriented task, because it tests geometric and spatial manipulation. That might be why boys in the gender-label group experienced what’s called “stereotype boost.” That’s the phenomenon in which members of a group with positive associations, like boys if the stereotype is that boys are good at puzzles, actually do better when they’re reminded that they are in that group.

The girls, on the other hand, likely experienced the opposite, or “stereotype threat.”

“If you trigger thoughts of gender, you see boys do better in math and girls do worse in math,” Brown explains. “It can be as much as asking kids to indicate their gender on the front of a test, to circle ‘boy’ or ‘girl,’ and then do some math problems. If you don’t have them circle their gender, then they perform the same.”

It’s not about repeating negative stereotypes to kids. Simply by activating the part of the brain that thinks about gender reminds them of the ideas they’ve picked up from peers, school, and media since they were about 3 years old.

“The girls who want to do well at math are the ones most concerned about that stereotype, and they’re the ones who have just enough concern that it eats up their working memory and a little bit of their executive function to reduce their performance just enough to show a gender gap,” Brown says.

If toymakers and educators want to avoid this problem, the study showed that making pink blocks for girls and blue dolls for boys probably won’t banish harmful stereotypes. (And there are just as many negative stereotypes plaguing boys too.) Instead, the toys should not remind them of gender at all.

Because children can’t be wholly isolated from a world that loves to categorize people, Brown says, there’s something else that parents and teachers can do to combat stereotype threat. Studies have shown that teaching kids about these stereotypes and why they’re wrong actually mitigates their negative effect.

“If you can’t censor the world, give them better eyes to understand it,” Brown says. “You have to be explicit. You can’t just say, ‘You’re so good at math.’ You have to say, ‘People think that girls are not good at math, but we know that’s not true.’”

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