New psychology study shows how parents can influence their children’s toy preferences

New research suggests that parents can influence their children’s preferences over time by exposing them to certain types of toys. But overt attempts to direct attention to a particular type of toy might not have much of an effect.

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Sex Roles.

“There is a good deal of debate about how differences in behavior between men and women come to be. On the one hand, there are physiological differences that can influence behavior and on the other hand, we can be socialized to behave in a particular way,” said study author Rebecca J. Woods of North Dakota State University.

“This is the ‘nature or nurture’ debate as it relates to sex differences. The crux of the nature/nurture debate is, ‘How much of behavior can be altered and how much is just the way it is…it can’t be changed without somehow changing our physical makeup?’ Can we decrease behaviors that put us at a disadvantage and increase behaviors that are good for us?”

“In the past, women were thought to be poorer than men at any number of cognitive tasks simply because as women, they were not able to grasp the concepts. Yet it was found that as women began engaging in many of the activities formerly restricted to men they also became better at some of those cognitive tasks (e.g., playing sports was related to improved spatial reasoning).”

“Right from the time a parent finds out the sex of their infant, they begin treating the child differently depending on the sex. Because playing with dolls promotes nurturing behaviors, I wanted to know if females’ preferences for dolls and males’ preference for other toys is driven primarily by biological predispositions or by parents.”

A previous study by Woods used eye-tracking technology to examine the toy preferences of children aged 3 to 8 months. That study “gave some evidence that there may be a biological basis for these preferences. The next step was to test the alternative hypothesis, that parents had something to do with it,” she explained.

For her new study, Woods investigated whether parents could influence toy preferences among infants and toddlers.

In an initial test of their preferences, the researchers found that 5-month-old infants did not show a preference for looking at either dolls or trucks. Twelve-month-old girls also showed no preference when asked to select between the two types of toys. But 12-month-old boys preferred trucks over dolls.

The research included 51 infants and 60 toddlers, along with their parents.

Later in the study, the parents sat at a table with their child. Placed on the table was a doll and a truck. The parents were asked to play with their child using only one of the toys, and to discourage their child from playing with the other toy. But the parents were not effective in overriding their children’s initial preferences.

“Infants preferences for the toys used in the study were not altered by a few minutes of their parents encouraging them to play with a certain toy,” Woods told PsyPost. “These short term encouragements did not affect their preferences.”

But the researchers did find evidence that the number of toys parents made available to their children was associated with their preferences.

“The toys that they played with in the home (i.e., the toys that they had been exposed to for some time) predicted their preferences. Since parents choose the toys in the home, parents may be able to influence infants’ toy preferences over time through simple exposure to toys,” Woods said.

Parents reported that male children had nearly twice as many trucks as they had dolls, while female children had about equal numbers of trucks and dolls.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“One big caveat of our study was that the amount of time a child plays with a toy was reported by parents. We know that parents are biased by the known sex of their child and by social norms. That means that parents who had the attitude that males ‘should not’ play with dolls is likely to report that their son does not play with dolls in the home,” Woods explained.

“However, in a follow up study, we have monitored parents’ attitudes about gender norms and have found no link between their attitudes and the amount of time they report their child plays with a particular toy (unpublished as of yet).”

A child’s siblings could also have an influence on their toy preferences.

“A second follow-up study, also not yet completed, has shown that the number of female siblings in the home predict whether or not a male infant is exposed to dolls, so it is important to recognize that siblings also play a role in influencing toy preferences,” Woods said.

“We are also looking at longer-term encouragement. We are sending toys home with the child for a week to find out if a longer (although admittedly still relatively short term) duration of encouragement will influence preferences. In this study, we have also added gender-neutral toys to find out whether gender-typed toys are more or less likely to be influenced by encouragement relative to other types of toys.”

The study, “Parents’ Influence on Infants’ Gender-Typed Toy Preferences“, was authored by Josh L. Boe and Rebecca J. Woods.