Should Boys Have Barbies? Expert Advice on Gender-Specific Toys

Walking through Target or flipping through a Toys "R" Us catalog, there's generally no question which toys are aimed at which gender. Facing those aisles of tea sets and Barbie dolls or toy guns and fight-ready action figures can make even the most tolerant among us crave a gender-free holiday.

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Toys tend to cater to traditional gender roles, but there's good reason to break out of the stereotypes. Broadening your child's toy horizons may help him or her tap into an undiscovered talent or interest. Playing with dolls may develop your son's understanding of empathy. A sporty playset may boost your daughter's confidence. Whatever your preference, the most important thing when looking for toys, says Laura Scott, a 30-year veteran in the field of child/adult education, is whether they're age appropriate and developmentally significant.

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"Our adult mindsets make us, influence us and drive us to buy guns and sports equipment for boys, while buying dolls and arts/crafts items for girls," says Scott. "We as adults designate pink for girls and blue for boys. Children are not aware of these 'rules' until we as adults teach them."

Bette Holtzman, vice president of consumer and family advocacy for The Goldberger Company, a 93-year-old family-run toy company specializing in early childhood toys, agrees with Scott. "Who's issue is this: the kids or the parents?" she asks. "That's what it really boils down to."

Gender issues are different for every generation, Holtzman says, particularly when it comes to the topic of dolls. While grandparents of today may take issue with boys playing with dolls, younger generations are increasingly receptive to the idea. The Goldberger Company, for example, makes dolls that are male, female, and androgynous, and Holtzman says the dolls are beneficial to both boys and girls.

"Children need to learn to negotiate their world," Holtzman says. "They need to understand what it's like to be in somebody else's shoes. And for them to play carpenter, play mommy, play school teacher, play fireman -- that's how they learn those sorts of things.

"That said, the grandmas and the grandpas may have a harder time with the cross-gender playing."

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Kids and their parents may be more accepting -- and even desiring -- of the cross-gender play, Holtzman says, but retail stores can be more old-fashioned. "The retailers aren't ready to put boy dolls in the stores," she says, pointing to the example of "Tinkles," an anatomically correct drink-and-wet doll that comes as a boy or a girl and is sold by Goldberger. Babies "R" Us offers the dolls, but no one else has been interested. "The response was, 'America's not really quite ready for this yet,'" she says.

But that's not what customers seeking the dolls out are saying. "While our sales weren't through the roof, our customer comments were all positive."

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By Kate Silver for