When Words Fail [Guest]

Alex, mother of two, possessor of a doctorate in literature and an extensive music collection, and my main source of mix-tapes, is also a regular reader and commenter here. She posted last week on the cool band They Might Be Giants and is back by popular demand (and my nagging) to vent about something before she explodes. Welcome back, Alex!

What is the difference between these two lists of words?

List One

boots, glue, moon, dogs, treasure, grass, caterpillar, climbing, swinging, swimming.

List Two

music, stars, birds, friends, sky, ladybird, skipping, dancing, cooking

To me, both look pretty innocuous lists of words that might be of interest to young children. However, the wise people at Fridge Magic say that list one are ‘Boys words’ (sic – the lack of apostrophe is their mistake, not mine) while those in list two are for girls, apparently.

The lists get worse, in sadly predictable ways. Girls are encouraged to learn the words:


While boys get:


I don’t really know where to start. With the ludicrous distinction between moon and stars, caterpillar and ladybird, or with the crushing predictability of the adventurous boys vs beautiful girls message being promoted, or with the sheer outrageousness of having lipstick, make-up and perfume as essential words for girls just starting out on their reading adventure.

And fluff?! As a friend of mine said, why don’t they just go the whole hog and put clever on the boys’ list and pretty on the girls’?

feminism, gendered language, Christian parenting, boys and girls magnetic girls talk, gendered language, stupid toys, Christian parenting, feminist parenting

I get angry about a lot of things to do with the excessive gender splitting imposed on our children. I get cross when I see the choice of sludge-coloured clothes for our boys against the rainbow of colours for our girls. I get enraged when I see the impractical and flimsy footwear offered to my daughter against the robust and weather-appropriate offerings for my son. I get seriously annoyed when I see pink versions of what should be gender-neutral items pushed at little girls and their parents (an all-pink globe for girls, anyone?)

pinkification, pink stinks, gendered toys, feminist parenting, Christian parenting

But what makes me really mad is when our children’s vocabulary is divided in this way and then promoted as an aid to literacy. I’m sorry. No. I will not buy into that.

And, let me be clear, that as the mother of a boy and a girl, I am equally outraged on both their behalves. Why should our boys not be expected to have friends, listen to music, experience love, enjoy sunshine and rainbows and flowers? This is not just about the damaging messages we are sending to our daughters about the world and their place in it, it is about the limitations we are placing on our sons and their expectations.

Perhaps I should lighten up. Perhaps these are just innocent toys and cause no harm. Anything that helps our kids learn how to read has to be a good thing, right?

No. I don’t think so. I think words matter – they are how we describe and interact with our world and express our experiences of it. And I don’t think we can be too careful about the messages we send to our children, consciously or otherwise.

Our children are, first and foremost, children. There may be differences between them, but I firmly believe there are as many differences between girls or between boys as there are between girls and boys. I know plenty of girls who love mud and running and dinosaurs, just as much as they enjoy stories about princesses, making necklaces and things that sparkle. Likewise, I know plenty of boys who love cooking and dancing and playing with fairy wands, just as much as they enjoy hunting for worms, playing football and wearing blue. We do both sets of children a massive disservice when we ask them to deny part of themselves.

On a positive note, I notice that Amazon at least don’t seem to be selling these things at the moment, (do read the wonderful reviews of the product, though!) and they don’t appear on Fridge Magic’s own website, so perhaps the makers have thought better of selling them.

Now to persuade the local shop to follow their lead – pass me my stationery set someone, I feel a strongly-worded letter coming on.

For more on how we ‘over-gender’ our kids and their books, toys, adjectives and clothes, you might like to read:

Is This a Toy for Boys or Girls?

I’m Not Bossy I Just Have Better Ideas

Can Your Daughter Be a Hero?

A Mighty Need

Wanted: Rainbow Baby

If you have other examples or stories of gendered toys to share, please leave a comment below. Ranting encouraged 🙂 but all opinions welcome.

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14 comments on “When Words Fail [Guest]”

  1. not a wild hera Reply

    Thanks for this, Alex!

    One of the things I hate about these products is how casually it’s all done. Fridge Magic has a whole range supposedly tailored to the UK National Literacy Strategy, but not only are they doing this sort of thoughtless sexist nonsense, they also can’t spell ‘complement’ or use apostrophes correctly on the packaging for LITERACY PRODUCTS! How much do they really care about literacy?


    • Alex Reply

      Thanks for lending me your soapbox so I could get it off my chest!
      I agree, the mistakes on there go to show how cynical it all is, and certainly make me doubt their commitment to promoting literacy.

  2. Daina Reply

    Mwahahahahaha reminds me of the Bic “for her” pink pens – that has great reviews on amazon too and I think Ellen roasted it too from memory 🙂 Ridiculous that this still sells in 2013!

  3. SKATERAK Reply

    It is a shame that there is a market for these products. When making resources for my class, I try very hard to put girls on skateboards and boys in the kitchen (for a cheesy example) around the classroom. I also object to ‘ice cream’ being on the list for girls.

    Alex, great writing. I hope your message is heeded clear and loud.

    • Alex Reply

      Thanks Skaterak. I also object to ‘ice cream’ (since when did it need a hyphen anyway?!) and don’t see why ‘sherbet’ and ‘candy’ have to be there as well as sweets. Children in the UK don’t generally get candy anyway… The only positive I can find is that at least both genders are allowed chocolate, bubbles and magic. But that’s not much in their favour.

  4. nzecochick Reply

    So true!! Well written. I hate how things are so boys or girls stuff. I have 2 boys and try to keep things as gender neutral as possible even that said my oldest loves his cars, diggers and other machinery but also loves dolls, flowers and cooking so go figure. I’m trying hard to balance my boys. I guess you have to decide what goes in your house and keep out of the shops. Mx

    • Alex Reply

      Thanks, M. My son loves cars and trucks and diggers too – I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself. Like you say, it’s about finding a balance that works for you and your children. It’s the total lack of balance in these magnets that made me so cross.

  5. Tracey Reply

    I was out shopping with my oldest daughter when she was a toddler, and we saw a toy vacuum cleaner. I swear the first thought that popped into my head was “Awww, how cute, I should get that for her!”. Then I thought to myself “what on earth for, why does she need a toy vacuum cleaner?” I resolved though, if I ever had a boy, I would buy one for him. Two more kids later, I never did buy a toy vacuum cleaner, but we got given one. My son’s favourite pass time with it was to carry various parts of it through the house. I have caught him playing at mopping and cleaning though, so there’s hope for him! My two girls like their dolls and my little ponies, but they are also active in other areas such as doing puzzles, reading, drawing, playing out doors, and riding bikes and scooters, so I’m not too worried about them.

    • Alex Reply

      Hi Tracey, I think most little children like playing with miniature versions of the things they see us using – be that vacuum cleaners or anything else. Boys as well as girls. And they’ll all find their own ways of playing with them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing with dolls, it’s just part of the mix.
      (I have to confess that as I was scrolling through this post on the screen my 3-year-old daughter spotted the pink globe and said “ooh, can I have one?!” – her big brother has a “normal” globe and she’s got to the age where she wants a version of whatever he’s got : I guess having it in pink would differentiate it from his… I’m not going to buy her one, though! When she’s older, I’ll explain why.)

  6. SKATERAK Reply

    I do preach that as much as much as these items make me cringe, I defied people’s right to own them. Not everyone shares my views on gender and some people (parents and children alike) want girls to be pink and boys to be blue – across culture and race.

    I wouldn’t want to force anyone to be someone they are not or less that they might and If a girl wants pink and pretty, who am I to buy her an air pistol for Christmas? 😉

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