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Guns and Dolls

When my son Sam was a toddler, I banned toy guns and swords. I bought him a doll and a toy vacuum cleaner instead. Boys play aggressively, I believed, because they have so many aggressive-looking toys to play with. In my theory, a kid with fun and charming alternatives wouldn't miss the weapons, and he'd grow up to be a sweet and caring man to boot.

So I was surprised that Sam never once spontaneously cuddled his doll and only reluctantly joined me when I said brightly, "Let's give the baby a bottle!" And I was shocked when at ½, he picked up a cracker, bit off a corner, pointed the long end at me, and shouted, "Pow! You're dead!"

Many parents who think they've done all they can to make sure their children won't be shaped by gender stereotypes are mystified by such behavior. A friend who's a lawyer recalls when her 3-year-old daughter, in response to a "you can be anything you want" speech, said, "Then I'll be a princess, and you'll have to buy me lots of beautiful clothes."

Why is it that so many kids blossom into such walking, talking clichés when they play? And how does this affect the grown-ups they'll become?

Nature? Nurture?

The way kids play is determined by a range of factors. Influences as diverse as hormones and pop culture combine in a complex stew in which cause is often indistinguishable from effect. Understanding this not only let me come to terms with my own sons' behavior but also pointed the way for me to help them be boys who follow their heart rather than the herd. What I found:

Born to play Barbie? In a blow to every parent who thought vigilance and encouragement could bring forth girls who play with trucks as easily as dollhouses, a child's taste in toys is now thought to be influenced in part by testosterone levels in the fetus during pregnancy. Although amounts vary individually even within the same gender, higher concentrations may predispose the majority of boys to behave more aggressively.

Megan Decker of Bozeman, Montana, noticed the differences between her kids early on. When the family recently spent a few days at a remote cabin, Olivia, 3, decided she had to have a doll -- but her mom hadn't packed one. "So she found some oarlocks wrapped in duct tape, and it was her 'baby' all weekend. It had no baby characteristics at all, but it was better than nothing," says Decker. Five-year-old Jonathan, meanwhile, frequently makes guns out of whatever materials are nearby.

The urge to imitate. Biology can go only so far in explaining kids' preferences, though. They play pretend versions of whatever social routine is at hand, and Mom and Dad -- a child's first playmates -- inevitably have a role in defining gender norms for them.

Studies show that most of us unconsciously treat our kids differently from birth, handling a son more roughly, talking to our daughters more frequently. And the boy whose testosterone helped hardwire his brain also has a father and uncles who model male behavior for him every day and both knowingly and unknowingly encourage it. Ditto for mothers, daughters, and female behavior. Sometimes our signals can be so subtle that they're easy to miss. My husband, Haywood, was perfectly comfortable with the fact that Sam had a doll, but it was never something they played with together. Invariably, they did things Haywood himself enjoyed: tossing a baseball, playing hide-and-seek. Without meaning to, Haywood had reinforced the idea that dolls aren't a guy thing.

At other times our messages are more overt. Susan Gilbert, author of A Field Guide to Boys and Girls, remembers when her son, David, then 2, wanted a toy kitchen. Her husband -- who frequently cooks for the family -- surprised her by saying, "But that's a girl toy."

The culture factor. TV, movies, video games, and books tend to reinforce the idea that certain activities -- such as dancing -- are for girls and others -- like seeking adventure -- are for boys. When your daughter watches a commercial in which several boys are oohing and ahhing over a remote-control motorcycle, she'll most likely pick up on the ad's subtext: This isn't a toy for girls.

Often, even classically gender-neutral items are given design cues that signal which sex they're intended for. "The only toddler cars we could find were either lavender and pink or black and red cop cars with lightning bolts," says Rich Brotherton, a dad of two in Austin. Nonetheless, the chicken-and-egg question remains: Does toy marketing drive demand, or are toy companies simply responding to what kids already want?

A very young worldview. The most severe gender police of all are probably kids themselves. Starting around age 3, they instinctively figure out the world by sorting virtually everything they encounter into mental categories. And until they begin to develop more complex reasoning skills, usually by age 7, there's little room for ambiguity in that way of thinking. To many, boys wear pants and get dirty and girls have long hair and throw tea parties. And everyone -- themselves included -- must behave in said fashion to qualify as a member of their sex. That's why a girl who's always been a bit of a tomboy may suddenly insist on wearing dresses when she gets to preschool; she wants to clarify -- in her own mind -- which gender she belongs to.

The power of peers. The predisposition to viewing things without nuance is then magnified by groups of similarly inclined kids, whether at the playground or in school. "When my neighbor's son was four, he would say, 'Pink is my favorite color,'" says Adele Faber, coauthor of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. "Now that he's gone to kindergarten, he sees the way things go in the boy world: Pink is a girl's color. So he professes to hate it."

Even when our kids begin to outgrow that kind of rigid thinking, they don't escape the need to feel they fit in. "Most children band together in same-sex groups, and they get teased about being with those of the opposite sex," says Eleanor Maccoby, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together. "The social taboos kick in, and they want to feel like they belong." That explains why a boy may become more traditionally masculine in the company of his friends.

A Toy Is Just a Toy

Sex-stereotyped play may be virtually unavoidable, but that doesn't mean our kids will still be caricatures when they grow up. And as complicated as the influences on gender identity can be, the role of toys is far simpler. "Whether you think your child falls prey to the stereotypes too much or not nearly enough, in the end, it's just play," says Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. "No link has been established between the toys a child likes at six or seven and the kind of adult he becomes."

Parents' fears that weapons foster male aggression and Barbie reinforces the idea that worth comes from a tiny waist and giant breasts don't hold up under scrutiny either, say experts.

And sometimes banning a toy can backfire, giving it a forbidden-fruit luster that makes it more appealing. Sam had amassed an arsenal fashioned from sticks -- a stick pistol, a stick rifle, a stick musket -- before I gave in and got him a six-shooter for his cowboy costume the Halloween he was 4. He played with that gun obsessively for six months, then ignored it except when other boys came over. His younger brothers, who are growing up in a house where guns are no longer anathema, have never shown much interest in them.

Bottom line: It's a noble goal to empower our sons and daughters to make their own way in the world and to liberate them from rigid definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. But discouraging some toys and encouraging others won't do much to accomplish that. Besides, "it's the rare kid who's so gender-typed that a boy is 'all boy' or a girl is 'all frilly,'" says Gilbert.

Luckily, while you may not have much effect on your child's play preferences, you can influence his values. That's why it's a good idea to regularly voice what you believe, to provide a sort of reality check on the cartoon version of the world that kids create in their mind. It may not seem so at the time, but your child will pick up on it.

More important, you need to live the lessons you want your child to learn. "When kids observe dads who cook and moms who balance the checkbook, those images give them a frame of reference for how adults behave," says Kindlon.

Sam is 11 now, and I have to say I can't imagine a better-balanced kid: Sure, he's a third-base-stealing, maple-tree-climbing, all-male model of dirt and sweat and skinned knees. But he's also a tender sweetheart of a boy, one who reads to his brothers before bed every night -- Joe tucked under one of his arms and Henry under the other. Standing in his doorway, watching the good-night scene, it's hard to imagine that I ever worried about buying him a six-shooter.

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl wrote about finding out your baby's sex in the May 2003 issue.