MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. So today, it's the holiday season. We want their advice about toys. You know, for many parents, it's not all fun and games. Some parents worry about the messages that toys send their kids about culture or race and often about gender. And if you've been in a toy store recently, you probably know what I'm talking about - princess and pink on one side, guns, tanks and dinosaurs on the other side. The new company GoldieBlox is taking the issue head on with books and construction sets for girls. Here's a clip of CEO Debbie Sterling.
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DEBBIE STERLING: We all know girls love princesses. But the thing is, we don't have a national shortage of princesses. But we do have a national shortage of engineers. Only 11 percent of engineers in the U.S. are women, and this is a problem.
MARTIN: But a lot of parents disagree about just what the problem is. Is the problem the toys, or is the problem the expectation that playtime has also has to be about a lesson in values? So we wanted to talk about this. So we've called Neal Hoffman. He's the father of two boys. He's a former Hasbro employee. And he's with us from Cincinnati. We hope to have with us from Los Angeles Sarah Maizes. She's the mother of two girls and a boy, a parenting blogger for the Huffington Post and today.com. She also has a background in the toy industry. And one of our regular contributors, Jamila Bey, a mom to a 5-year-old boy and a contrarian on a lot of issues. So we wanted to hear her prospective. Welcome to you all. Thanks so much for joining us.
JAMILA BEY: Thank you.
NEAL HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, Jamila, I'm going to start with you because, you know, we all know that if you say to a child, you know, play with this. It's good for you. That is exactly the recipe to send him or her running in the opposite direction. And I'm not trying to say that, you know, something that teaches something and something that's fun - those are not incompatible. But when you think about the toys that you want for your son, do you think about values? Or you just think, OK, this is something that'll be fun for him to play with?
BEY: It is hard because I do want to impart my values. I do want to impart the feeling that critical thinking is something that you do all the time. I don't want to give him plastic stuff that was made by children about his age in a faraway land that tell you how to play with a toy, what it's for and everything that's the storyline and how you should play with that. So I found that going back to blocks, giving him stuff that he can build, knock over and make sounds with on his own is fun. It's getting harder and harder to find that.
MARTIN: What about the gender piece, the pink versus blue conundrum?
BEY: I hate it. Already, you go into an aisle of toys and you see that pink ghetto. And my kid goes, oh, I can't play with that. That's for girls. And we are a feminist family. This is a feminist child. And for him to say that, I go, honey, you can play with whatever. But already, the culture is dictating - these things are not for you, they are for girls, and they are lesser. And that is a value that we have to fight all the time. My boy can have a kitchen set. My boy can have a, you know, a doll if he wants to.
MARTIN: As long as it's in cami.
BEY: ...That's how they tend to do it. But, you know, let's be real. Kids rip the clothes off and run them around the floor like trucks anyway. So it's hard, but you got to fight it all the time.
MARTIN: Sarah, what about you?
SARAH MAIZES: You know what? I don't mind the pink aisle. In fact, I remember very clearly as a kid, I would walk through a toy store and I would see a pink aisle, and I would make a beeline for it. I do understand that some people feel like it's an issue of gender - toys, putting things like princesses and girl stuff and baby things and toasters - play toasters. But the real issue is that the pink aisle, as long as it contains toys that are more about imagination and inspiration and is something that's attractive to my kids, I'm OK with it. I really am.
And maybe I'm lucky because I have a boy and I have a girl. So when I bring home a toy, if my son wants to play with it, there's no one in the store eyeballing him and vice a versa. But whether or not there's a pink aisle or a blue aisle never had an impact on me as a mom or as a child on whether or not it was a toy I wanted to play with. It just attracted me to the aisle to look at the toys.
MARTIN: Neal, what about you? And just want to mention, we spoke to you last week about a new toy that you developed this year called Mensch on a Bench. It's kind of - it is the - if we can say this - counterpart to Elf on the Shelf. So congratulations on that. And happy Hanukkah to you and Sarah, by the way.
MAIZES: Thank you.
HOFFMAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Neal, where are you on the whole pink versus blue, and does a toy have to have some meaning before you pick it up?
HOFFMAN: On pink versus blue, I think the toy company's job is to offer choices to parents. And then it's the parents' jobs to dictate how they want to raise their kids and steer them. So I'm OK with pink versus blue aisles. When my 4-year-old learned that we were having a baby, we took him to the doll aisle. We let him get his own baby doll. We let him play with it and experience that. So that option is open to us. But I have no problems with pink versus blue, especially on the construction aisle where, if it brings more girls into a category where right now they're not playing, I think that's good for everyone.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting 'cause the dad on this and what message the toys send is a complicated one. And, Jamila, I know that you're very interested in kind of research-based, you know, information. You know, it's like - this Time Magazine article, you know, "The War on Pink," which was published actually just last week, said, you know, quantifying cultural influences is complicated. The United States has one of the biggest gender gaps in math and science scores, but it's impossible to know - I'm quoting here - how much of an effect changing the toy aisles would have.
In parts of Asia, for example, there are plenty of dolls in the stores but a much smaller math-gender gap for hosts of other cultural reasons, like a better gender balance of teachers, you know, in the school. So, Jamila, do you consult research like that in figuring out what you want to do or buy? Or do you kind of just go with your gut and what makes sense to you?
BEY: I do tend to go with my gut. But as the geek I am, my gut is informed by a lot of the research that I've already read. Here's my issue. When you put a girl in a pink aisle and say pick what you will, honey, when she goes to find the blocks that are in the major retailers, they are, let's build a beach house. Let's build a closet. Let's put clothes in these things. When you give a boy a toy about bugs and whatever, there are insects and dinosaurs, but butterflies, those are girl insects. Butterflies are all pink and purple. And, you know, there are male butterflies. We know this. Birds are...
MAIZES: There has to be.
BEY: ...That's a girl animal. Birds are for girls. You have to go into the girl aisle to get your boy stuff. Boys can cross into the girl aisles where they live in places where people are educated and enlightened. When I go down home to my family gatherings and I want my kid to play freely, and I want to get gifts for everybody's children, that distinction is very clear - why would you get my boy that purple thing?>>MARTIN: Well, speaking of that, you know, since this is - and if you're just joining us, it's our Parenting Roundtable. We're talking about finding toys that teach the, quote-unquote, right values and how you go about doing that and if that's really important. And our guests are Jamila Bey - she's one of our regular contributors, journalist and mom - also, a dad, Neal Hoffman, who's also got a background in the toy business, as does parenting blogger and mom Sarah Maizes. Speaking of the whole gift-giving question, Jamila, do you - how do you manage that? I mean, there are - I think, a lot of people of color, for example, feel very strongly about their children getting blonde dolls...
MARTIN: ...White dolls if they are not themselves blonde because they feel that the whole culture sends a message that that's to be preferred. And so they prefer in their own home to have dolls that look like the children who are in the home and get very annoyed if somebody does not do that. But other people feel, what's your problem? You know, what I mean? So where are you on that?
BEY: It's - I come - I have a mixed-race family. My black boy does have blonde hair. And it's very important to me that his books have dark people in them, that he sees beautiful women who are not blonde-haired who look like his mother does. And it's about upholding the beauty in all people. For me, you'd - I...
MARTIN: So if somebody gave you a blonde doll, you wouldn't be mad.
BEY: Yeah, I would not - OK, I can't be untruthful. I would be upset. There are enough images of blonde beautiful people...
BEY: ...And the blonde male who is the...
BEY: ...Superhero. I want my kid to get the idea and to play with toys like the Disney little girl who's got natural hair. And she's a doctor, and she's - she doctors her toys. I like him to get that. I like him to see beautiful women who look like his mother.
MARTIN: Neal, what about you? You've got two boys. And then there's the always - there's the ever-popular, do you let your boy have a toy gun, you know, question, you know, or not. Where are you on that?
HOFFMAN: Sure. So first of all, I love superheroes. And I love what Marvel has done where when my sons are playing with superheroes, they're of all races. They're men. They're women. So they don't care as long as they have superpowers. And I think Marvel, DC, they've done a really nice job of leveling the playing field where my son doesn't see color or sex. He sees, what power do they have, which I think is really fun. In terms of guns, you know, that's a personal choice in each household.
In my household, we're not comfortable with realistic guns. There's a difference, in my mind, between a blaster and a gun. So blasters shoot lasers. They shoot Nerf darts. I had a blast playing last week a Nerf war with my 5-year-old throughout the house. We were just having so much fun. But when we go to the arcade and he wants to play a shooting game with a realistic gun, that's where I draw the line. And I say, no. And...
MARTIN: And what about for other people? What if you had, you know, family members who were serving in the military or something, and they did not have that feeling about it? What would you - what do you do?
HOFFMAN: That's a personal choice. I mean, if you're in the military or you're a household that has guns and is more comfortable with them, then I think, you know, you're welcome to have them. And that's your choice in your house. Within my house, you know, we draw the line at blasters and fantasy versus reality. So people know not to give us those kind of presents.
MARTIN: Sarah, what about you?
MAIZES: I - it's funny, Neal, you said that. We have a huge Nerf war thing going on in my house. And I actually keep some sort of this - a bow with the Nerf - with Nerf arrows in my closet in case my kids aren't in bed on time. They think it's hysterical. I'm a big fan. Maybe it's because my kids are older. But I like toys that will expand beyond the actual gift or something that is - that facilitates a hobby or a like or something like that.
And that's the kind of thing I go for. I don't have as much of the Barbie issues so much, even though when the girls were a little bit younger, we got a lot of Barbie stuff. There was just no way around it. We got Barbie stuff all over the place, especially because I was at Mattel. But for me, the sort of gifts I look for - and, Jamila, this is probably something you go to, too - you look for a Lakeshore, an educational outlet, someplace you can go to in order to buy blocks or plastic dinosaurs, which were the hugest favorite toy for my children.
MARTIN: But see, when you say there's no way around it, there is a way around it. You can make it go away, and a lot of people do. They make it go away. They say, well, yeah, no. Or they let their relatives know that they don't particularly care for it, their friends or other. And sometimes that causes...
MAIZES: I don't think you can make it go away. I disagree. I think that no matter where you go, you are faced with pink toys and blaster guns and superheroes. You go to friends' houses. I mean, you really have to live in a bubble in order to be able to avoid the pink and the blue.
MARTIN: Jamila, you were saying on the - I was curious about where you are on the science-themed gift. You were telling us that you have gotten into some trouble with your relatives because of the science gifts that you like to share.
MARTIN: On the other hand, you don't particularly want "Veggie Tales," which...
MARTIN: ...For those who are unaware, it's an animated series that often has biblical, you know, messages. But you're not a fan of those.
BEY: No. "Veggie Tales" teaches your children to obey and to submit, and those are words that we don't use in our house. It's hard 'cause my kids...
MARTIN: Well, some people would disagree. They teach - some people feel it teaches love and compassion and...
BEY: Yeah, that's fine. There are a lot of ways to teach love and compassion. But when the message is actually said, well, he turned away from God. He disobeyed, and that's very bad. I'm going, no. No, my kid needs to be able to go back and forth with me. But I get my...
MARTIN: But did you give...
MARTIN: ...Your family dinosaurs, and they're not loving them.
BEY: Well, yeah, because that implies that the world is not 10,000 years old. And I gave a cousin - her son is my son's age. And I gave him a book that had pictures at the end of it of a little girl and a little boy, and they were in underpants, but both of them were topless. They're about 4 years old in the book, and it's telling - it's teaching children about their bodies.
And my sister goes, oh, the girl doesn't have a top on. And I go, you can't tell she's a girl except for the bow in her hair. Look at it. And she goes, oh, no. It says our bodies evolve, too. You can't give my cousin a book about evolution. And I go, it's teaching the kids about their bodies. And so I gave my cousin the book, and she said, well, I just won't read that page to them. And, you know, and they gave me a "Veggie Tales" thing.
MARTIN: Jamila is popular at family gatherings. You can tell. Always keeps it exciting. So, Neal, where are you on that - a question like that? I don't know if everybody in your family shares your same kind of faith commitments or worldview. How do you navigate something like that, something you feel really strongly about, but they may not?
HOFFMAN: The ironic thing is, before this season, we had a pretty clear distinction between church and toys, right? There was never any religious overtone to toys until we came up with "The Mensch on a Bench," which has been really interesting, the number of non-Jewish people who have taken to that to learn about the Jewish holidays.
And they realize we're not force-feeding it. They just want to use it as an educational piece. As far as "Veggie Tales," I mean, there are some families that want to use that as lessons for their children. And learning through play is great. It's not something we do in our household. But, you know, the more options there are for parents to teach kids, I think, the better.
MARTIN: Sarah, what about you? We only have about a minute and a half left. Where are you on this? And before I let you go, Sarah, you know I have to ask you since you're the parenting blogger here, what's the hot toy this season? Is there one, and we're going to all immediately rush out after the segment and go get it?
MAIZES: Well, you know, the GoldieBlox issue has created quite a stir. And I think that there will be a tremendous amount of sales for the GoldieBlox stuff. But I feel like I've seen a tremendous amount of imagination toys, engineering toys, science toys because of the gender issue being raised. I think it's just something that's a little bug in parents' heads. And they're thinking more about it this holiday season.
MARTIN: So then there's the ever-popular gift card.
MAIZES: God bless the gift card.
HOFFMAN: Oh, that's a copout. It's fun to go buy the toys.
MAIZES: When the kids get older, they want to shop themselves.
MARTIN: So that you can listen to Jamila tell you why you're wrong. And then of course, there's the whole question that sometimes the research that is - sometimes what you think is right is in fact wrong. One more data point, according to Po Bronsen and Ashley Merrymen, authors of "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children," they say that some of these games that people think actually teach cooperation actually make kids more aggressive because too much time was spent on the conflict and not the resolution. So if that doesn't make your head hurt, I don't know what would.
MAIZES: Oh, we can't win.
MARTIN: No, you can't win. What are you getting, Sarah? What are you getting? Our secret - we won't tell anybody. What's the secret? What are you getting the kids this year? Secret.
MAIZES: Gift cards.
MARTIN: Gift cards, seriously? Neal, what are you getting the kids this year? We won't tell.
HOFFMAN: I think you can't go wrong with Furby.
MARTIN: Furby. OK, Jamila, what are you getting?
BEY: Make your own paper airplane and paint them books.
MAIZES: Oh, that's cool.
BEY: Science, baby.
MAIZES: I like that.
MARTIN: Jamila Bey is mom extraordinaire. They - all of our parents are. She is a journalist - freelance journalist, and she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Sarah Maizes is a parenting humorist, a blogger for the Huffington Post and Today.com with us from NPR West. Neal Hoffman is the creator of the Hanukkah-themed toy and book "Mensch on a Bench" with us from Cincinnati. Parents, moms and dad, thank you all so much.
BEY: Thank you.
MAIZES: Thank you for having me.
HOFFMAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.