Raising children without gender stereotypes

Let Toys Be Toys started when a few parents shared their frustrations at the gendered toy aisles and adverts in the run up to Christmas 2012 on Mumsnet. The grassroots campaign – after six years still run completely by volunteers – took off quickly. Initially simply asking retailers not to limit children by labelling some toys ‘for girls’ and some ‘for boys’. In that first year, many UK retailers took down their ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’ signs, with 14 retailers now making that change. In 2014, the Let Books Be Books campaign launched, and now 11 UK publishers have pledged to stop publishing such gendered titles as ‘Gorgeous Girls’ Colouring Book’ or ‘Cooking for Boys’.

Why it matters

We think that the signs and the stereotypes they represent matter: they affect self-image and self-esteem, and limit job expectations and life chances. Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity. Play matters – children of all ages need a wide range of play to develop different skills, whether that be language development through small world play or ‘home corner’ role play, or spatial skills and fine motor skills through construction play. Those play experiences feed into what children feel confident about when they start school, or as they make subject choices later in their education.

As parents ourselves, we may have ostensibly started with the signs in shops and labels on books, but the heart of our campaign has always been about giving all children choice, and enabling them to be themselves. Over the six years that the campaign has been running, there are still myriad examples of how children encounter constraining gender stereotypes in their everyday lives – on TV, in adverts, at school, in sport, and, sometimes, at home.

As Dr Finn Mackay explains in a blog for Let Toys Be Toys, ‘As parents, relatives or educators, we have to acknowledge that too often our society sends toxic messages, and sometimes, so do we. We do it every time we tell a boy to be brave and not to cry; every time we tell a girl she’s pretty.’ Rebecca Asher, author of Man Up, calls this ‘innocent socialisation’: ‘In the past I flattered myself that I steered clear of inflicting such gendered assumptions on my children. However I also learnt during my research that we constantly interact with our children in a gendered way, even when we are not aware of it. This so called ‘innocent socialisation’ may come through in the slightest look or touch indicating approval or disapproval about toy choices, or the tone of our conversations, or what we choose to talk about.’

So what practical things can we do as parents, to raise our children without gender stereotypes?

1. #MoreAlikeThanDifferent

Rebecca Asher refers to how when she was ‘reviewing the work of neuroscientists, psychologists and educationalists, one message consistently came through loud and clear: the commonalities between boys and girls far outweigh the differences and it is largely the way we raise children and the gender stereotypes we bring to our parenting that create and magnify such differences between the sexes rather than any ‘innate’ characteristics or aptitudes.’ On Twitter and Instagram, we share images of children who are #MoreAlikeThanDifferent Boys and girls do play together, they like the same things and one boy might like fairies and football, and one girl might like superheroes and sparkles.

Part of this is not reinforcing difference, not reminding children they are first boys or girls, and then children. Dr Finn Mackay suggests parents ‘let all children be people before stereotypes’.

2. Model equality

Try to share jobs around the house, or point out that mummy drives and daddy cooks. Let your children see you doing boring and necessary tasks and point out how caring tasks, DIY and domestic tasks are ALL important, and sometimes can be fun.

3. Consciously encourage ‘non-gendered’ play and behaviour

As Dr Finn Mackay says: ‘Tell your girls to be adventurous, let them climb trees without telling them to be careful at every branch. Buy trucks and bricks for your girls because they might be architects one day, or racing drivers. Hug your boys, comfort them when they are upset, tell them they are beautiful. Buy dolls for your boys because they might be fathers or carers one day, or nursery teachers.’

We have some suggestions for gift recommendations at the end of this article, all taken from our Toymark awarded shops across the UK.

4. Be aware of your unconscious language and behaviour

Try to listen and mentally note how you talk to your children: do you tell girls to be careful, do you let boys be more unruly; do you read more with your daughters than with your sons? What compliments do you regularly give your children’s friends without realising? Do you more often buy books as birthday presents for girls and footballs or Lego as presents for boys?

5. Challenge prejudice and take a stand when you can

It can be hard sometimes when talking to other parents or to older relatives to challenge what they say, particularly when your own children are there. Wear it lightly and try using anecdotes if there’s talk of ‘boys will be boys’ – ‘oh my niece has always been much braver on the big slide than her brother’ – or ‘my son / nephew / best friend’s son has always liked pink, it’s still his favourite colour age 10’. Talk to your own children about prejudice and stereotypes, even if it’s as simple as ‘all colours are for everyone!’ or ‘of course boys can be dancers and girls can be footballers!’.

6. It’s not just for girls….

You’ll have noticed some of the anecdotes and examples we give are as much for boys as well as girls. Gendered expectations and ‘innocent socialisation’ have as harmful an effect on boys as they do for girls. It also sends messages to all children that ‘girly’ is inferior – ‘run like a girl’, ‘cry like a girl’. Value and respect all traditional women’s work and refrain from using ‘girl’ or ‘girly’ as an insult.

7. Nor just for mums… dads, use your privilege!

One suggestion from Rebecca Asher that she feels passionately about, is for fathers to take their full paternity leave and shared parental leave and to model equal parenting in the workplace. When men are in senior positions they have a great opportunity to influence work / life culture: promote women after maternity leave, whether in full-time, part-time or job share roles, go part-time themselves, leave on time to be hands-on dads.

8. Shareable posters

The twenty tips poster from Let Toys Be Toys contains lots of ideas for unstereotyping children. There is no reason to divide up our children by sex alone, especially when it comes to toys or colours; children should be free to enjoy and experiment with all toys, colours and activities. Download and print out the poster and refer back to it within your family.


Some supporters tell us about how their children often first realise there are ‘girl things’ or ‘boy things’ when they start Nursery or Reception, or play with older children in those settings, For that, we offer 10 ways to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom which you can give to your child’s teacher or key-worker at nursery. 

As promised earlier, here are some gift recommendations taken from our Toymark awarded shops across the UK.

Gift suggestions from http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/category/gift-guides/

It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr

Cleverly delivers the important messages of acceptance, understanding and confidence in an accessible, child-friendly format featuring Todd Parr’s trademark bold, bright colours and silly scenes. Targeted to young children first beginning to read, this book will inspire kids to celebrate their individuality through acceptance of others and self-confidence. Available from Bookmarks.

Clive and His Babies by Jessica Spanyol 

Meet Clive – and his imagination! Clive loves his dolls. He enjoys playing with them, and sharing them with his friends. A gentle, affectionate book, celebrating diversity and challenging gender stereotypes. And there are lots more Clive books to read!


Super Daisy by Kes Gray & Nick Sharratt. 

One of the most joyful girl characters on the book market, now in superhero form. And with a new mission: to save the world form them pesky green peas. Age 3-6. Daisy also features in chapter books for 6+.

Clive and His Babies and Super Daisy are available through Letterbox Library, who partner with Let Toys Be Toys for the #letbooksbebooks campaign. 


Needle felting kits

In the BBC2 documentary, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free, the 7 and 8 year old boys were given craft kits to make a soft toy and discovered how much they loved it.

Krasnaya offers a range of easy to achieve and cute felted animal kits from £7.99. Their kits use a polystyrene egg to felt onto making it much simpler and helping to avoid those painful stabbed fingers. An ideal introduction to this wonderful craft.


Construction set. Recommended Age: 3+, £22.00 from Wood and Wonder

We all know science is for everyone, but gender bias means STEM toys are often targeted squarely at boys, (or else given a dusting of pink glitter and lipstick as if that’s the only way to get girls interested). We’ve chosen eleven toys and books to help curious children everywhere develop an interest in science and discovery.