When I was small, Legos were among my favorite toys. My parents were certainly not models of gender equity — my brother was given trucks, dinosaurs and chemistry sets to play with, while dolls, doll houses and dress-up kits were exclusively mine — but Legos, like Winnie the Pooh books and sandbox toys, were considered gender neutral, just things that kids enjoyed.
My favorite Lego activity during my fifth year, as my parents used to remind me, was reconstructing my dentist's office. This wasn't because I had ambitions to become either a dentist or an architect (or a dental assistant, as my mother assumed), but because I was fascinated by the glass bricks embedded in the wall between his waiting room and treatment room, which allowed the natural light from the treatment room to enter the waiting room but kept the pained, numbed or embarrassed patient out of sight.
The way the bricks filtered the light and created changing patterns on the walls and furniture captured my imagination, and I would spend hours trying to recreate the effect with the solid and transparent Lego bricks in my kit. I would place the "office" on a bookshelf in front of a living room window and watch in wonder, for hours on end, as the rays of light illuminating the brick "furniture" changed with the sun and the passing clouds. I would need to dismantle my creations at bedtime, but the next chance I got I would start over. I never managed to achieve the sharp, precise effect of actual glass, but the effort absorbed me for a long time.
As an adult, I spent several years in art school, and ended up concentrating in watercolor and gouache paintings that tried to capture the effects of light filtered though glass and liquid (colored bottles, glasses of juice, etc). I gave up painting seriously when Ben was small, after a few memorable accidents, but I continue to take photographs of lit candles in glass holders, a bottle of wine by a window, and other phenomena that embody the fascination with filtered light that I first explored hands-on with Legos.
By the time Ben was five, Lego was starting to market separately to boys and girls, but the effort was subtle, and there was considerable crossover. He received a number of "boy-themed" sets (police and space captains) but his favorite was a zoo set (now apparently only sold through the girl-oriented Friends line). Because he was and is a kindhearted vegetarian, he changed it into an animal sanctuary, where he, as the friendly proprietor, took in escapees from the circus, aquariums and zoos, and made sure they were happy and comfortable in environments that he created to resemble their natural homes. This entailed trips to the library for picture books about polar bears, seals, lions and tigers. Animal life still fascinates him, and he retains a habit of rescuing stray or mistreated animals and bringing them home (fortunately, no lions or polar bears so far).
My point is, kids are their weird selves starting very early, and their personalities and interests are much more complicated and interesting than simply "girl stuff" and "boy stuff." But now, in addition to the sparkly pink and purple Friends line http://www.lego.com/en-us/friends (featuring an ice cream parlor, which I would have thought would appeal to all kids, a hair salon, and a shopping mall, all marketed exclusively to girls (seriously, check out the link)), they have begun issuing a magazine targeted at girls aged 5-12. According to this New York Times blog post, a recent issue includes "beauty tips" that help readers identify and minimize flaws in their appearance.
These magazines are sent to girls starting at age 5 — my age when I started playing with filtered light; Ben's when he first became a caretaker for needy animals. Would we have still pursued these interests if we had been railroaded into "gender appropriate" play? I hope so, but it might have been harder. And the message that appearance is of paramount importance is transmitted to girls soon enough in our culture. Why not let children be children, and pursue their interests without pigeonholing them? What are we so afraid of?
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