By Lisa Selin Davis
Washington - "What are the best gender-neutral toy companies?" a friend recently asked me. To her, avoiding gender-coded presents meant avoiding the omnipresent pink-sparkly LOL girls' dolls and blue-hued Paw Patrol boys' trucks.
Like many parents, she had accepted as gospel that these toys were inherently feminine or masculine, respectively. The way around those entrenched ideas, she thought, was to find new and different things: wooden toys in yellow or green; T-shirts in teal or orange; maybe a pogo stick. Any kid could like a pogo stick, right?
Right. But any child can like a pink and sparkly doll, a ball, or a blue Tonka truck too - if we work to change the gendered messaging around them.
The gendering of children's toys and clothes is surprisingly recent. Until the end of the 19th century, kids were dressed mostly according to age, not sex, with boys and girls wearing frilly dresses and sporting long hair until they went to school. Research by G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer of child psychology, found that as many as 76 percent of boys played with dolls.
But as the fields of psychology and sexology gained prominence, fears about homosexuality rose. Parents began emphasizing masculinity in boys by regulating what they wore or played with to ensure they'd grow up to be straight.
No more frilly dresses for boys. Meanwhile, toys became increasingly gendered too, with construction equipment for boys and dolls and housecleaning toys for girls.
The homophobic and misogynistic practice of teaching kids to be straight and perform traditional gender roles through toys and clothes continued throughout the century. Yet many boys still played with dolls, often secretly. When G.I. Joe debuted in 1964, it was, after all, nothing if not a doll for boys.
There was a brief hiatus during my childhood in the 1970s and into the mid-1980s. The rise of popular feminism, the passage of Title IX, and other cultural forces, opened up boys' worlds to some girls.
But in the 1980s, gender and sex were once again emphasized in toys and clothes due to a host of generational swings. Many parents who'd grown up with unisex clothes as kids in the 1970s now embraced hyper-gendered clothes and toys as they had kids of their own. Dividing everything into pink and blue, from clothes to computer tablets - and the games, apps and shows that populate them - has become the norm.
But we now seem poised to swing back in the opposite direction again. As the first generation reared with fully hyper-gendered childhoods had children of their own, some, like my friend, want to reject the gender messages they grew up with.
If we're going to do that right, we can't simply avoid all of the toys, clothes, and activities that we've saddled with gender meanings. Instead we have to ignore, defy, expose and explode those meanings, especially the meaning that girls' things are inherently worse - and not appropriate for boys.
Many of the things that we have traditionally associated with boys have long since been opened to girls, from sports to pants. But there has never been a concerted movement to open girls' worlds to boys.
Even in the 1970s, there were no pink big wheels for all, no girls'-to-boys' sizes conversion charts in the girls' section of the catalogue. But that's what it's going to take to make toys, clothes and the rest of kids' material worlds gender-neutral.
Many parents whom I've spoken to believe their kids' toy and clothing preferences are unsullied by cultural messaging and rooted in biology. While there may be a biological component to some sex-typed differences, most children learn to like the toys they are expected to like because of their sex or gender identity.
Research shows that reading gender atypical storybooks and presenting kids with counter-stereotypical images can shift how and with whom they play, their preferences, and even the jobs they aspire to. It may change the possibilities they see for others and for themselves.
Why is that important? Increasingly, we're cataloguing the fallout from restrictive gender norms and hyper-gendered childhoods, from toxic masculinity in boys to eating disorders and low self-esteem in girls.
And what happens when a child is drawn to what he's not supposed to like? Many parents of pink- and dress-loving boys have told me they have sent a son to kindergarten in his favourite tutu or sporting his sparkly backpack.
By the time they picked him up on the first day, he knew never to do it again. Children learn early and effectively how to police gender and wield gender-based shame, so we have to teach them differently.
That's one reason it's so important to talk to children about gender stereotypes, and for schools, parents, retailers and manufacturers to stop imposing so much gender onto clothes and toys. Show boys on craft-kit packaging. Show short-haired girls playing flag football. Tell kids that no colour, toy or item of clothing is for one sex.
It's not that the pogo stick or the green and yellow wooden toys are inherently gender-neutral; it's that we've signed a cultural agreement to accept them that way. After all, once we thought pants were only for boys, and dresses were for boys and girls.
More companies are working toward this. The Toy Industry Association ended its boy and girl toy-of-the-year categories in 2016. There are purple shirts with hearts for boys and STEM toys pitched to girls.
But the truth is, we don't need to make new stuff or different stuff. Instead we need to stop gender-coding the stuff we already have, and we need to make children feel that they are allowed to play with every toy, to wear any item of clothing and any colour, to develop any skill or personality trait. If we do that, eventually many more children will have a merry Christmas and happy holidays.
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of "Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different."