"Can I whisper something in your ear?" my son asked, sidling up to me on the couch one morning the week before his fifth birthday.
He smelled sweet of sweat and pancake syrup. "Of course you can. Talk to me," I said. "I'm wondering if I can ask for Shopkins for my birthday. I want them but they are for girls," he said with a hush. I sat stunned.
Gender is not something we often consider when making decisions in our household. Both of my sons have enjoyed getting their nails done with me, and I happily oblige. My daughter had little interest in dolls or dresses, preferring her younger brother's hockey jersey as acceptable school-picture attire until middle school, when hormones took hold and makeup became the norm. But somewhere at school, my youngest came to believe Shopkins were meant for girls.
We've seen the outrageous ways marketers pitch pink anything to women (pens, hammers), while candy comes in "adventurous" flavors for boys and "enchanted" flavors for girls. There are pink clothes hangers for girls and blue for boys, and even cowgirl toy guns in, of course, pink.
While toy manufacturers continue to brand toys specifically based on gender, big names such as Target, Walmart and Toys R Us have stopped labelling aisles specifically "boy" or "girl."
"So what's the harm?" you might ask. National Geographic's January issue, titled Gender Revolution, explored the science and research behind gender and its history, expression, evolution and impact on society.
According to Natasha Daly, author of the National Geographic article "How Today's Toys May Be Harming Your Daughter," the various researchers she interviewed believe that "anytime play is restricted or one gender is not exposed to certain toys, there are bound to be consequences.
Research already shows girls' play is negatively impacted in the areas of spatial reasoning and problem-solving because they are not encouraged to build or construct. We know, for instance, that girls' puzzles are made with fewer pieces." She also learned through her discussions that, "toys can impact comfort level. For instance, Legos are equated with construction, dolls with nurturing. When kids aren't given a chance to develop these skills through play, it can have an impact later in life."
Play is central to the development of critical thinking early in life. How we play, and the toys we play with, can affect a child's future profession. Some researchers even say this is why we do not see as many women pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers. "If parents understand the importance of exposing boys and girls to different types of toys, they can make informed decisions based on that information rather than what is being marketed to them based on their child's gender," Daly said.
The gender bias extends far beyond the toy aisle. I took my oldest to a babysitting class last summer to become an official, CPR-certified child-watching tween. Of the 16 people in her class, one was male. Another friend told me his 16-year-old son's Advanced Placement computer-science class is 16 boys to one girl. Is this a result of parents not offering options or a genuine lack of interest?
What impact might this have on stay-at-home fathers, a role typically filled by women in past generations? According to the Pew Research Center, the ranks of stay-at-home and single fathers have grown significantly in recent decades. As of 2012, 16 percent of US fathers with children in their household were not working outside the home – that's roughly 2 million dads.
Of those, 21 percent reported that they were home to provide care for their family, up from five percent in 1989. With women today getting the majority of college degrees in the United States, that trend is likely to continue upward.
It is also remarkable to note that we don't really have a word, a positive one anyway, for boys who play and act in a feminine manner, unless we tie it to sexuality. For girls, we use the term "tomboy." But for boys who enjoy playing dress-up or with dolls or baking, the word is often "sissy" – or worse. There is a negative connotation associated with anything less than complete masculinity, even in adulthood.
Remember the amount of grief Ben Stiller's character got in Meet The Fockers for being a male nurse? And that is a laugh track in a movie. It speaks nothing to the fact that almost half of trans-identified people have attempted or died by suicide. Or that kids who are bullied for being different (often tied to sexual identity or gender) are two to nine times as likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University. In 2016, more transgender people were the victim of hate crimes in the United States than in any other year on record, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Those who say these kids should just live with the gender they were assigned at birth have never had to question theirs.
While we are making strides to bridge the gap where gender is concerned – the first male CoverGirl, legislation centered on transgender people's use of bathrooms, stores such as Target removing gender signage, publications such as National Geographic devoting entire issues to keeping these important conversations going – we still have a long way to go.
Identity is important. Feeling as though you belong somewhere, and are not judged for it, means something. We proudly wear our favorite sports teams' gear; we join the alumni groups of our alma maters. But belonging means something different for all of us. When we remove gender labels, we become a more inclusive society. Not just for transgender children.
Or people who are bisexual or gay or gender non-binary. But for all of us. For girls such as my cousin, a neuroimmunologist finding a cure for multiple sclerosis. And also for my son, who will be getting Shopkins for his fifth birthday.