In years gone by, children would have been lucky to get a wooden horse and an orange in their stocking. Then, over time, the Christmas marketing machine snowballed into the gifting mania that exists today.
Even when I was a child 30 years ago there was still greater simplicity in toys - baby dolls were designed to look like real babies, building bricks were in unisex colours of yellow or red and dressing up was about first and foremost about escapist make-believe. Now there is a chilling realism, even hyperrealism in the products on the market today. Barbie dolls ape top models on the catwalk and a whole 'blue' market of science gadgets and boys' toys has been spawned alongside the frilly, glitzy, pink aisle.
'They are just toys, they can't really do any harm' I can hear people say. But sadly they can and are. The physique of the modern day Barbie doll projects an image of women that is impossibly perfect. Her 18-inch equivalent waist impossible on a healthy human. She is also typically presented in stereotypical situations: Barbie at the hairdresser, Barbie out shopping, Barbie and her pink convertible. If a child's reference is her world then surely something unhealthy is at play. Mattel has recently tried to address this with a new ad that shows girls placing their Barbie's in science lectures, and on the sports field, but the concept is then rather undermined by the silly girlie dialogue which dilutes the message and puts us back to square one.
Boys toys represent the other extreme with an array of aggressive, menacing characters and dark realms that reinforce the Alpha Male inside. Heaven forbid that they want to sew or cook. The way the toys are branded and presented codes them as so clearly 'male' or 'female' that children find it hard to cross those gendered lines. Parents are thus confronted with two tricky options - ditch the gender biased toys and risk long faces on Xmas morning or give in to the pressure that starts in August!
Campaigns by parent-groups like Let Toys Be Toys have gathered momentum and the tide is beginning to turn with a few brands launching products that buck stereotypes. A huge franchise for Xmas 2015 will be the newly-launched Lego Star Wars range that prominently features the new female heroine Rey and her vehicles. There also some new toys on the market such as the award-winning Lottie dolls that are based on the proportions of a real child and presented wearing no make-up, jewellery or high heels.
Some might still be wondering how buying certain toys can have any effect on a child's development or self-perception. And the reality is that one very gender-stereotyped toy will not make the difference, but if a child is surrounded by playthings that suggest a certain type of norm for behaviour, that influence will undoubtedly take hold. Certainly, evidence shows that confidence takes root at an early age, and that if a child feels 'different' that will have consequences in their ability to deal with life and make the right choices later on.
Our children's options are being limited by the role models we have for them, both as children in their playtime and adults in the media and public arena. And of course, allowing your child to 'be themselves' is probably one of the hardest challenges when the outside world isn't always accepting. Friends recount sending their sons to school on dress up day in Elsa's dress and having to deal with the aftermath of nasty comments. Perhaps the safest bet is to allow them to explore their identity in the nurturing confines of their own home.
So even though it might appear pointless, actually your choice of gift this holiday is very important. The notion of separate toy aisles for boys and girl only emerged in the 1980s when manufacturers cottoned on to the fact that parents might spend double if there were both blue toys and pink toys rather than unisex options that can be passed down through families. And whilst this gender gap exists the toys are created accordingly - vampish My Little Pony vs evil War Lord. If we start buying more 'balanced toys' - ones that encourage our daughters and sons to be what they want, then we are all joining forces to build a more liberating and confident future for them. And if we don't buy chemistry sets for girls or cooking stations for boys then the toymakers will stop making them and the retailers will continue with boy/girl segregation. It is the same for shows and movies - it is about time we had normal heroes and heroines, and ones that don't spend all the time either swooning or swashbuckling.
If you do give in to your childrens' pleas to have the same as everyone else then you may actually be doing them a disservice. They might say they want them, but at a deeper level, they actually resent them. Your daughter might be on the surface overjoyed by her new Barbie, but looking at her impeccable skin hair and body may make her feel inadequate. Similarly if you give your son a menacing video game, if he feels scared or rejects it in any way he will feel 'pathetic'.
Christmas is a time of caring, of togetherness and childlike joy. You wouldn't parade a top model in your dining room during the roast turkey lunch nor would you launch a vicious sword fight on your granddad. This is what we are doing to our children in buying them the seemingly fun-filled and innocent toys that line the store windows. If anything this undermines the festive spirit, and even more worryingly the natural self-esteem that all our children so richly deserve.