When Nora was born, Jim was just 19 months old, and still unable to communicate other than with the most basic words (ba-ba, da-da, na-na). But we could tell right away that while he liked his new sister, he was a little jealous when our attention was focused on her needs, instead of his, as they had been his entire life. So we decided to get him a little baby doll, a boy, which he called “Seth.” When we fed Nora, Jim fed Seth. When we changed her diapers, he changed Seth, and so on.
This was an effective distraction for a few months, but eventually Jim decided it was too much work caring for Seth and went on to other distractions, like emptying all the kitchen cupboards or running around the apartment like a mad banshee. He kept Seth for many years, but when he was around ten years old he must have decided that it was embarrassing to own a doll because we found it hidden in the deepest recess of his closet.
Psychologists have wondered for decades whether boys preferred “boy toys” because of a natural inclination to like hard, mechanically-oriented things, or simply because those around them encouraged them to play with the toys they felt were appropriate for boys. Similarly, do girls “naturally” like to play with dolls, or are they encouraged to do so by their parents? While researchers have found that kids around 18 months and older do prefer the traditional gender-specific toys, research for younger kids (presumably less-influenced by their parents) is less clear-cut.
A 2000 study showed babies between 3 and 18 months old pictures of toys traditionally preferred by each gender and measured how long boys and girls looked at the pictures. The boys as young as 9 months old seemed to prefer toys like balls, blocks, and cars to dolls, dustpans, and ovens. However, even the 18-month-old girls showed no apparent preference for any type of toy based on how long they looked at them.
One problem with this sort of study is that it’s not very precise: is the baby really focusing on a particular toy, or just pointing its head in that general direction?
New technology allows researchers to record the precise eye movements of infants, and a team led by Gerianne Alexander designed a simple study to see if 6-month-olds really showed sex differences in toy preference. Thirty babies were placed in a car seat in front of a small puppet stage, whose curtain was opened for ten seconds to reveal two toys: a pink doll and a blue truck. The curtain was lowered, the position of the toys was switched, and it was raised again for another ten seconds, so each toy was seen in each spot for the same amount of time. Then the number of looks at each toy was carefully tallied by gender. Here are the results:
While both boys and girls fixated more on the doll than the truck, girls looked at the doll significantly more than the boys did, and looked at the truck significantly less than the boys. The researchers say babies this young don’t have the motor skills to actually play with these toys, so the result must be due to different visual preferences in boys and girls. Arguably, babies at this age don’t have any opinion about gender roles and don’t even particularly distinguish between genders, so social influences must not be responsible for this difference.
Personally, I’m not so sure I’m convinced by the researchers’ logic. Little girls are dressed in pink and boys are dressed in blue from a very young age. Girls are given dolls and boys are given trucks, so whether the babies are conscious of gender roles or are able to physically interact with these toys, they have been exposed to them more or less based on their gender. But whether or not you agree with the analysis, it’s intriguing to learn that at an average age of 6 months, girls already appear to be more interested in dolls and less interested in trucks than boys are.
Alexander, G., Wilcox, T., & Woods, R. (2008). Sex Differences in Infants’ Visual Interest in Toys Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38 (3), 427-433 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-008-9430-1