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Recent letter: “My 3 1/2 year-old son is a great kid but he wants a Barbie doll. (He also plays with boy toys). My husband says absolutely not. What do you think?”

This letter arrived the same week that both my sister and a friend questioned why on earth I gave a doll house to my granddaughter and a garage to my grandson. Didn’t I know that was sexist behavior on my part?

Hey, I have fought against sexism and sexist attitudes all my adult life. Sex discrimination is not only illegal in the work place, but it is wrong everywhere because it constricts both women and men.

Of course there are biological differences between men and women: procreational differences, certain physical differences like muscle mass, and certain behavioral differences. Gender roles, however, are culturally determined behaviors or characteristics that society assigns or attributes to one gender or the other. Gender role stereotyping goes further, holding that human characteristics such as nurturing or assertiveness, which either men or women can have, are biologically determined absolutes like having a uterus or a penis. Sexism is still worse as it is based on the idea that there is a natural hierarchy with men always at the top.

Stereotyping and sexism are harmful to children. If they grow up thinking that girls are always docile and complying and boys are always tough and aggressive, they are not only hobbled making childhood choices but are also ill-prepared for adult life today.

Parents should model gender neutral behavior by sharing household tasks and assigning chores regardless of gender. Remember, your son may grow up to be a househusband and your daughter an astronaut.

More important, parents should avoid coddling and over-protecting girls and allow boys to express their feelings, including crying, without criticism.

Forced to think about gender specific toys, I have come to the following conclusions: toys are trivial compared to family attitudes and practices. What is important is that as parents we NEVER LIMIT a child’s horizons because of OUR preconceived notions about what a boy or girl should like or do.

I have observed that more young boys like to play with “girl” toys like dolls and kitchen sets than girls like to play with dump trucks and fire engines. First of all, boys are more familiar with what’s in a home than what’s in a fire house. Second, playing with dolls fosters more imaginative play than rolling a toy car on the floor.

Many young boys prefer to dress up in Mommy’s old clothes than Daddy’s. Not to worry. It doesn’t mean your son is a future drag queen. It’s that women wear more interesting and varied clothes than men do.

No matter how carefully parents avoid gender stereotyping when it comes to toys, it doesn’t always work. The fact that you buy a truck for your daughter and toy dishes for your son, does not mean these will be preferred toys.

I once heard of very politically correct parents who bought their son a doll and their daughter a truck. They found the daughter cradling the truck in her arms and the boy yelling, “Vroom-vroom!” as he rolled the doll along the floor.

My daughter gave me permission to buy one “big” toy for each twin to be kept in each bedroom. The doll house which was set up in Hannah’s room is getting more attention from BOTH twins than the garage with elevator and ramp which is in Jeremy’s room. But both toys are played with by both children and shown off with pride to little friends.

Important advice about toys is never tell a boy, “Don’t play with that toy, it’s for girls.” or tell a girl, “You can’t play with that, it’s for boys.”

Your preschooler boy wants a Barbie doll? Why not? Fathers who feel secure about their own roles, spend time with their sons, and understand child development, need not object. Chances are the boy will soon tire of dolls, not because of what the parents say or do but because his peers will tease him about it or lead him into “boy” games.

My “gender advice” for parents:

ACCEPT your child. Know, understand, and fully accept your child’s temperament, desires, interests, and dreams.

BEWARE OF GENDER STEREOTYPES. All gender stereotypes — yours and those of our culture — affect both boys and girls.

ENCOURAGE EVERY CHILD TO FOLLOW HIS OR HER DREAM. Your daughter likes tools? Buy her a toy tool set and let her go to engineering school. Your son likes dress-up, and art? Be fearless in encouraging him to meet his own goals.

LET EVERY CHILD PLAY WITH WHATEVER HE OR SHE WANTS TO PLAY WITH. My only concerns about toys: ban toy weapons and avoid toy overload so the kiddies can appreciate what they have.

Then you can be an enABLEr of your child’s birthright to be himself or herself — a precious gift.