Can We Influence Our Kids' Color Preferences? Maybe — And Here's Why It Might Be Worth Trying

Photo by Maria Manco

The theory that "pink is for girls, blue is for boys" is embedded into our psyches from an early age—even before we're out of the womb, if you think about the symbolic colors that fuel "gender reveal" parties. But contrary to popular belief, little girls are not hard-wired to love pink, and favoring blue is not part of a boy's innate preferences. It's society that teaches those preferences. And while some people might question why it matters—colors are harmless, right?—gendered coloring is just one example of how kids aren't given the freedom to choose for themselves what they love and how they express themselves.

New research even suggests such gendering can have far-reaching effects that last a lifetime. A recent study, published in Sex Roles, found that gendered labels on toys affect both children's color preferences as well as how well they perform.

To find this out, researchers from Hong Kong University presented 126 preschoolers between the ages of 5 and 7 with yellow and green cards and toys. They found girls were drawn toward yellow toys after being told that yellow was a "girl's color," while boys chose green toys after being told that green was a "boy's color." However, kids who were not given a specific gender association for yellow or green showed no preference for either color of toy.

The researchers then gave the children yellow and green puzzles to play with to test the impact of gender labels on performance. Boys and girls completed the puzzle equally well when no one mentioned which colors were for which gender. But if they were exposed to gender labels—regardless of whether they received the "gender-appropriate" colored puzzles—boys outperformed girls.

The researchers believe that a possible explanation for the boys' improved performance is the "stereotype boost effect," which is based on the theory that a person's performance on a stereotype-relevant task improves when the positively stereotyped group identity is made obvious through environmental prompts. In this case, because playing with the given puzzles required spatial skills, which are often dubbed "male" skills, kids might assume boys are naturally better at solving them and subconsciously perform according to those expectations.

These findings raise important questions that go way beyond pink vs. blue or green vs. yellow. If being told a color is "for girls" or "for boys" can influence a child's ability to perform well and succeed, imagine the effects of telling kids that certain character traits, skills, passions, school subjects, jobs, and roles within a family are also "for" a specific gender. At best, early-age gendering results in girls and boys playing with different kinds of toys, reading different kinds of books, and maybe having different kinds of interests and hobbies.

But those small differences add up to big results: girls being encouraged to focus on different, "softer" subjects at school and college, pursuing different career paths, and assuming different roles within the family and the workplace. Not having the freedom to love what you love during your youngest years can shape your life in a way that's quite different from what you would choose if society hadn't been so restrictive—and it's not hard to see how those expectations can unfairly force women into less powerful social roles.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with women enjoying pink—the problem is simply when that pressure to love pink leads to constraints and consequences. Of course, these social cues also affect boys' lives: A little boy who is different from the "norm" in any way (because he doesn't live up to the "big, strong man" stereotype, perhaps) may feel like a failure or a misfit. He may grow up believing he can't express his emotions because that's something only girls are encouraged to do (see: that outdated idea of "boys don't cry").

The answer to gender inequality isn't simply dropping labels and making everything gender neutral. But it may be worth it for any parent and anyone who works with children to simply be more conscious of the way we're shaping their interests and behaviors based on what we encourage and expect from them. Being just a bit more mindful about the way we all influence children's preferences—and demanding more options from the companies that make toys and products for our youngest members of society—can give our kids the chance to form their own identities based on instinct and individuality.

These are all small steps that can, over time, move us closer to equality, both in and beyond the toy aisle.

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