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Are gender-neutral toys much ado about nothing?

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Child's play: Adults may spend a lot of time thinking about gender-neutral toys, but do kids even care?

With all eyes on London in recent weeks, the city's most famous department store managed to steal a few headlines -- and maybe a few Olympics tourists -- by unveiling a new gender-neutral toy department. At Harrods' 26,000-square-foot Toy Kingdom, children will find an enchanted forest, candy store and reading room -- but no sections designated for "boys" or "girls." Instead, toys are grouped into "zones" according to theme.

A victory for opponents of gender-stereotyping, or much ado about nothing?

"When you come right down to it, creating a so-called gender-neutral toy department has more to do with marketing than effective toy merchandising," says Chris Byrne, a 30-year veteran of the toy industry who writes toy reviews for TimetoPlayMag.com. "For children 3 and up, most toys are purchased as a result of a request by the child. Mom or dad is looking to find THAT toy when they go to the store. 'Gender neutral' is a meaningless distinction for that shopper."

Harrods isn't the first retailer to do away with "boy" and "girl" labels -- the Brits may be a bit behind the curve, in fact. At Toys "R" Us, merchandise is organized by category: learning toys, arts and crafts, dolls, musical instruments. But ask any parent, and you'll probably hear that implicit "boy" and "girl" sections do exist. In an informal survey of my mom friends, one said her daughter makes a beeline for the "pink aisle" at their local department store; another went searching for a toy vacuum requested by her young son and was directed to the "girls' home cleaning and baking aisle."

"You go to Target or a toy store, and all you see are the girl aisles and the boy aisles," says Patti Rommel, Director of Research & Development at the educational toy company Lakeshore Learning . "It does feel like in the past few years, we've gone overboard with gender-specific toys. I think parents should be thinking about some gender-neutral toys. There's a place for both."

Experts agree that gender-neutral toys shouldn't completely replace gender-specific ones. Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based child psychologist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent," suggests that parents make a variety of toys available and then watch how the child plays. 

"The argument for gender-specific toys is, they enhance the child's natural gravitation toward the direction he or she will already be going," Walfish says. "Toys do not cause a child to want to be a boy or a girl. Toys are simply a tool to help understand children better."

And Byrne, the toy industry veteran, points out that the biggest influence on a child's developing identity comes not from their toys, but from their parents. 

"One of the great myths of the toy industry is that it is somehow reinforcing gender stereotypes through the toys produced," Byrne says. "It is not. It is responding to the demands of the marketplace. 

"What you teach your children is what shows up in their toys."

Pamela Sitt is a Seattle mom and writer. Her daughter's favorite activity is pulling all of the tissues out of a box of Kleenex.

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