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Socially Responsible Toys for Girls

Finding Socially Responsible Toys for Little Girls

Are little girls' toys too sexy? Ask most mothers with little girls and you'll get a resounding "Yes!"

Dyanna Larson, mother of a preschool-aged daughter from Austin, Texas, is one of those mothers. "I find [some] dolls and their ilk disturbing for a lot of reasons," Larson says. "They are designed with a ton more makeup than your traditional fashion doll. The name [of some brands] actually bugs me a bit, too. Raising and disciplining children is hard enough without giving them toys that tout independence but package it with self-centered attitude."

Many dolls aren't the only toys being marketed with a new sexy attitude. They are just the tip of the iceberg of a whole slew of toys designed to be sleek, sexy and, above all, marketable.

Pretty has always been a marketing tool in little girls' toys. Young girls like their babies, stuffed animals and dolls to be pretty. But pretty is a very different concept than being sexy.

The Affect on Our Girls

Dolls and other toys that sell the idea of "hot" can send the wrong signals to toddler and preschool girls with their just-developing body image.

"We don't have research yet on these dolls, but girls who take in a lot of media (which has a lot of these sexualized girls in it) tend to have traditional beliefs about what it means to be a girl and endorse an ideal of beauty that's ultra thin ... [T]his of course can lead to eating disorders and poor self image," says Dr. Sharon Lamb, licensed psychologist and co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes (St. Martins Griffon, 2007).

Consider the following statistics:

  • According to the Academy for Eating Disorders, between 4 percent and 20 percent of young women practice unhealthy patterns of dieting, purging and binge-eating.
  • The Renfrew Center, an eating disorder recovery facility, reports that eating disorders are increasing in younger age groups, as young as 7 years and occurring increasingly in diverse ethnic and socio-cultural groups. Thirty to 40 percent of junior high girls worry about weight, and 40 percent of 9-year-old girls have dieted. They state that even 5-year-old girls are concerned about diet.

Do overtly sexual dolls and toys contribute to the eating disorder problem? That has yet to be scientifically proven, but parents and experts are casting a suspicious eye on toys that perpetuate a thin, sexy stereotype.

Creating Consumers

Dr. Sharon Lamb, a licensed psychologist, says that while the princess image has been with us for years, the image of what little girls are sold is different.

"The whole idea of princess is about being pretty, but today we see girls being shown what it means to grow up to be a teenager," Dr. Lamb says. "What these dolls show is that growing up means, above all, growing up sexy. Where can you find pretty represented without also being hot?"

By teaching young girls how to be teenagers, marketers are grooming a new generation of consumers. Teens have more disposable income than ever before and wield more power within the home to influence buying decisions. By 2010, teens are projected to comprise 10 percent of the U.S. population and they spent an estimated $190 billion in 2006.

The Influence of Family

No matter what types of toys your toddler or preschooler plays with, the values you teach your daughter are still powerful.

Ali Goldstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works clinically with children and adolescents in Los Angeles, Calif., isn't convinced that the images presented by toys are the only – or even the most important – factor in affecting childhood development.

"Parents need to present dolls in a way that children understand that they are just a game and something to play with and that they don't need to identify the images or values presented by these dolls with themselves, or model themselves after them," Goldstein says. "Parents should also limit children's time playing with toys, and be conscientious about helping them to recognize and make responsible decisions."

Goldstein says parents need to offer positive images and models that their children can look up to, and they need to help them understand what the media and the toy industry puts in front of them in a mindful and informative way. She also believes parents have to guide their children in making responsible choices. "Parents have to arm their children with the ability to make smart decisions on a daily basis as situations arise," Goldstein says.

Alternative Toys

Parents should make sure their daughter has plenty of alternative toys to play with – toys that carry positive messages. A recent panel discussion at the American International Toy Fair brought together industry experts to discuss the issue.

Peter Adkison, CEO of Hidden City Games and publisher of trading cards designed for girls, was one of those experts. He believes that alternatives need to be offered. "We think that it's important that there be games and toys available on the shelves that spark conversations about things other than just fashion trends and hairstyles," Adkison says. "We're not trying to take a moral high ground – we just simply want to ensure that there is more balance in the market, and alternative products available for parents who share these ideals."

Parents need to be aware that simply refusing to have certain toys in the home can have the affect of making them more desirable, especially for older children. Having conversations about the toys and why you don't like them will go far in helping your child make responsible decisions concerning the toys they choose when they start voicing their opinions on the toy aisles.

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