Next Steps

Next Steps: a Q&A with Siân Jones for Let Toys Be Toys PSG

Sian Jones joined our Let Toys Be Toys – Parenting Science Gang to help us refine our research ideas.

Siân Jones: I’m an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths and Birkbeck, UoL, and have a PhD in Psychology. My research is mainly in the area of developmental and educational psychology. I have most recently focused on children’s group (social) identities and how pretend play, can help to encourage more positive interactions between children from different groups. When it comes to gender identity, I’ve looked at how children see bullying as more or less serious depending on whether it is done by a girl or a boy to a girl or a boy (so physical bullying from girls towards boys is more serious, for example)

PSG A: I know you’ve been looking at our questions this last week, we’d love to know your thoughts.

Siân: I thought they were all really interesting questions – some with more done towards answering them by researchers than others.
I saw a common theme between several of them in looking at the messages that children receive from media / adults around them that stereotype a gender role – and what children “do” with this information.

So, what do children take from messages in books that have stereotypical (or otherwise) gender roles, for example and conversely – how do adults gender stereotype children’s behaviour – and enable it – or not?

Looking at the messages children receive and take in around gender roles is a really fascinating area for me.

As you discussed in another thread [in the Let Toys Be Toys PSG group] I thought it might be good for you to play to your strengths as parents – and look at the messages you give your children.

One of the research topics being considered by this group is:

Neurodivergent children & behaviour stereotypes: how much does gender bias influence peoples’ judgement on disruptive behaviour for neurodivergent children (e.g. “He’s a typical boy!” vs “Is she like this all the time?”)

Siân: I wonder if we could start with the way neurodivergent versus neurotypical children’s behaviour is seen as gender-consistent or not…

PSG E: Do you have a suggestion as to how we might do that?

Siân: You might look at children’s choice of play / toys and whether they are NT / neurodivergent at different ages

PSG A: PSG F suggested the question, based on personal experience. She said:

as a parent of neurodivergent children, two of my children are very similar, and have shown many of the same slightly unusual behaviours at the same age.

When it was my daughter, people would sidle up to me and ask Is she like this all the time??”” and started talking to me about autism when she was 15 months old. By contrast, now that i have a boy who does the same things, i get “”Oh, he’s such a boy.”” or “”He’s just a typical boy!””, even when, for example, there are approximately 60 children in the room, about half of them boys, and only one (mine) whose behaviour stands out visibly.

PSG F: My thinking was about how when people are looking at small children, do they gloss over parental concerns over boys, because “boys talk late” “boys are so physical” “boys just don’t sit still”, etc. We know that girls who do not stand out behaviourally (and they are less likely to) fly under the radar and are diagnosed later, but are boys missing out on early diagnosis and support due to adult’s gendered perceptions of their behaviour.

Siân: This is a really valid concern. My understanding is that child services are increasingly aware of this, and instruments are changing – but slowly.

Firstly, what do folk understand by the term neurodivergent in this context?

Siân: It can mean different things in different circles….

PSG F: autism, but also other things such as ADHD, dyspraxia, non-verbal learning disorder, tourettes…

PSG E: If I’m honest, I’m not sure I completely understand what it means, other than autism

PSG G: If we’re all on a spectrum how do you define where is typical & not typical? I’m a bit lost on this to be honest.

PSG C: Yes, me too. I see ‘traits’ in lots of children but not sure when it ‘tips over’.

Siân: You could score children on a measure of autism / adhd etc… or compare children with and without certain diagnoses…

PSG G: So there isn’t a spectrum then? There are definite symptoms & diagnoses? Sorry I’m really unknowledgeable on this.

PSG A: The idea of ASD being a spectrum isn’t that we’re all on it. You either are or you’re not. As I understand it, many people on the autistic spectrum don’t feel they want a “cure”. They feel autism is an integral part of them.

That’s partly what the idea neurodivergent is about – that those whose brains aren’t typical shouldn’t be automatically thought of as disabled. Divergent, not less than.

PSG G: Thanks, that makes sense.

PSG B: So neurotypical refers to people that aren’t autistic, even if they see the world quite different from that around them?

Siân: Neurodivergent can be other things too like ADHD.

PSG A: My understanding is that neurotypical is the absence of any conditions such as autism, ADHD, tourettes etc etc

Neurotypical includes interesting and varied, even eccentric, it doesn’t mean boring, necessarily!

PSG F: A spectrum is not a sliding scale.

PSG G: Are there spectrums for some of these conditions & not for others then? Sorry very new to this area.

Siân: One could even out numbers to account for this.

PSG F: Yes, tourettes for example is also a spectrum condition, with some people having learning and sometimes very severe behaviour challenges, others having only very mild tics.

PSG H: The difficulty with this could be that there are a % (probably significant amount) with no diagnosis?

PSG F: yes, the only way i could think of to look at it would be retrospectively, which probably isn’t as good. :/

PSG E: My concern is that it becomes neurotypical vs neurodivergent and that conclusions are down to that difference more than gender stereotypes

Siân: It could do. It would depend on how you measured neurodivergence

PSG E: But to be honest, I am with PSG G in that I’m a bit lost

Siân: Hmmm. It might not be the one that plays best to your strengths as a PSG.

PSG C: I was starting to think that!

PSG E: It’s certainly harder for those who don’t know much about it

How do gendered messages affect children?

Another of the research topics being considered by this group is:

Bedtime reading: Do stereotypes in stories effect children’s perceptions of gender? (Intervention-based study, lots of parents reading books at bedtime)

Siân: How do you feel about changing / playing with the messages you give children (in books / films / toys) and looking at how that affects their stereotyping / beliefs about gender?

PSG C: Yes, I think this is one we’ve talked most about and feel we could access a pool of parents who could help.

PSG F: I think that would be really interesting to do.

PSG I: I’m really interested in that one
Has much research been carried out in this area? Gender and books?

Siân: There has been lots of content analysis proving that females are portrayed as weak and weedy and passive et al – and that this has shifted some in recent years. Less on what children pick up from it.

PSG F: What about what adults pick up on it from reading with children? (just noticing my children’s gran making reference to girl/boy thing s a lot about current films/stories, as though referencing current culture for framing children’s anticipated interest.

Which media would you most be interested in working with ?

Siân: Films…audio books, tablet books, toys…..paper books….others?

PSG C: We previously had a chat about books. In particular stories at bedtime.

PSG E: We also chatted about audio books

PSG H: Paper books for me

PSG E: Would we have to do just one of those or could we mix media?

Siân: With a bigger pool you could do more than one medium and compare across, certainly 🙂
PSG G: It would be good to be flexible, but only if we have enough of each to draw solid conclusions?

There are some great films with strong child characters.

PSG E: Maybe films would be easier than books? Especially because it wouldn’t mess with bedtime.

PSG I: Paper books

PSG G: Books are something that every parent can access and from school age you often get a book a night – so the impact of a book is important.

Siân: This is very true 🙂

PSG E: Yes it is true, although kids often watch a lot of television and film too

PSG G: We have more time for TV at weekends & holidays, but week nights are full now with clubs etc & homework – we’re year 1.

PSG E: True, I hadn’t considered that!

PSG G: I wouldn’t have imagined it till this year!

Siân: Is reading a part of the schedule?

PSG G: Yes

PSG J: But with paper books we cannot control who reads them/ the voice & expression they use etc.If we’re talking about subtle influences, are we sure that we voice female characters strongly enough, etc? At least with an audio book or film, everyone gets closer to the same experience.

PSG G: I think in the chat with Lauren, she mentioned that if we design good before & after tests then the ‘quality’ of reading or any bias from us reading e.g. tone of voice would be accounted for in some way? Maybe q&as for parents etc, or sample size – I haven’t gone back to check but there seemed to be an answer.

Siân: Yup – certainly you can control for this ?

PSG G: Am interested in seeing if possible to see a difference between books read by people & audio. But my kids won’t listen to audio books – they go off and do something else instead. Maybe we’re just odd!

Sample size

Siân: You would need a reasonable size sample – at least 20 of you trying each thing

PSG A: One of our strengths as a group is sample size – for our breast milk experiment we managed 120 mothers and children to turning up at a university hospital to donate milk, for example.

Doing something at home (with an incentive of free books!) would be fairly easy to recruit for I imagine.

PSG C: That’s a great result! I don’t think we’ll struggle to get parents to join this one, which is another advantage.

PSG D: Although it might be easier in some ways to turn up somewhere on one day, than to do something consistently for two weeks!

PSG C: Perhaps, but I couldn’t get to London for that donation so we’re opening it up to a wider pool of parents.

PSG E: Maybe, but I think i would find it easier to do something for two weeks in my house than to travel somewhere so I think both have pros and cons.

PSG D: Yes, absolutely! I’m just thinking that personally I’m much more likely to do a one-off than remember to do it lots of times…

PSG D: But I may be particularly crap:-)

PSG C: Yes, I’m the same but my toddler leads the way. If I have to read Pirate Dinosaurs one more time ?

PSG E: I think my toddler could be persuaded but we certainly need a study flexible enough to cope with the stubborn days

How long do the messages stick?

Siân: I think Lauren talked about testing gender stereotypes before and after – memory tests (what children remember / confuse) are also useful. And what hasn’t been done is the longer term impact of these messages – so how long do the messages stick?

One study has shown that children remember info. wrong – that they make the details of the story gender stereotyped when they weren’t – shows just how embedded the stereotypes are

PSG F: Wow, that’s actually a little scary!

PSG D: How long term would you want to measure?

Siân: I want to check. Six weeks I think was what has been tested: so looking at up to six months later would be good 🙂

PSG A: Siân: that’s so interesting, would you be able to share the link with us for that study?

Siân: Rebecca Brueton Sure – Gender Schema and Prejudicial Recall: How Children Misremember, Fabricate, and Distort Gendered Picture Book Information.

Is it the same people interested in books or a different group?

PSG E: Are there similar people here to the chat with Lauren? I’m conscious we’re focusing on the bedtime story theme again when it didn’t come top of the vote. Although I personally am a big fan of the idea

PSG A: I’ll check after… my feeling is possibly not. It’s a popular question (top 3).

PSG E: Cool, personally I really like the idea but I know last time there was some concern from people that it was a done deal

[Edited to add] Just over half the people at this chat were not at the previous books chat.

Are children are more likely to play with a toy if a parent condones it as gender appropriate?

Siân: Children also get messages from the toys that are marketed at them – from films – and from us. One question might be whether children are more likely to play with a toy if a parent condones it as gender appropriate?
e.g. will a boy play with a child if Mum tells them that it is a girl’s toy?

PSG E: This is really interesting – the Let Toys Be Toys PSG group has lots of anecdotal stories along these lines

PSG F: maybe something along these lines might be able to actually give parents something to work with from the outcome? Like if we can show that a parent can influence a change in a child’s actual play style or willingness to step outside gender boundaries by making a simple change in how they encourage play, or what they read, then that might really encourage parents to actually, consciously do it.

PSG C: Yes, it would be good to see an impact where techniques could be shared.

Siân: Yes – exactly. Giving children the same toys with a different message attached to them, and videoing their play (or lack thereof) with the toy would be interesting.

PSG J: I think this is a really interesting idea. Has much been done in this area?

The other thing that was touched on in the questions you asked, was about different types of family and gender bias.

Siân: It would be interesting to measure the extent of gender stereotyping in different families – and whose messages children remember (nodding at the prestige question, too)

How easy is it to teach a child to address an envelope to Mrs and Mr. Higginbottom?

PSG G: Wow – I think I even misread that on first glance!

PSG E: Me too! I read it more than once as well ??

PSG A: Could the answer be – possibly easier than an adult?!

Siân: Could be. I don’t think it’s been done. Would be a case of teaching them – and asking for reproductions to see what they produced. Could also be done with graphs comparing females and males – lots of different exercises we could test.

Would be older children with exposure to stereotypes already.

PSG E: Does this have similarity to the idea of getting kids to draw recognisable professions and see the gender they draw?

Siân: Yes – that’s a related thing

PSG G: You’d need to have a particular age group though – writing wise.

Siân: Yes – although we could do other age appropriate exercises with younger folk

PSG E: Not only do they need to be able to write but also old enough to understand the concept of Mr. and Mrs. My toddler certainly doesn’t know about married people

PSG K: How would we go about something like this? Would we have to have one parent showing gender stereotypes and one not?

PSG G: Could we get enough family information to draw conclusions across families in this?

Siân: You’d need circa 20 children from each type of family.

What about looking at gender stereotypes in Apps?

PSG M: I’m pretty sure that hasn’t been done yet …

PSG G: Would that be the learning kind of thing? BBC playtime etc? Or even for older kids – games etc?

PSG A: Uurgh, the gender stereotypes in the apps marketed at my 5 year old are extreme 🙁

I let her play games I approve of, but sometimes they’re all full of ads for new games, and before I know it, my phone is chock-a-block with nail painting and cutesy appearance-based apps aimed at young girls 🙁

Stuff like this Hello Kitty Nail Salon

Siân: Yes – this would be novel to look at, too as a medium children have access to.

PSG G: Rebecca wow yes – loads of people do get/suffer with these. I don’t think I know any parent who likes them – there is a lot of peer/media pressure to get them.

PSG L: There is also as a source of gender stereotype annoyance.

PSG M: Ofcom has just produced 2017 figures for children’s access to screens, internet etc. broken down by age. Like it or not, children are using Apps, so maybe they warrant a close look

PSG G: Tablets are very common & for parents working & busy they are seen as very useful & hopefully educational.

PSG M: Blimey, finger just slipped and I ended up looking at that Nail Salon thing, OMG! Well, the commercial apps with pop up ads are one area, but it would also be interesting to take a look at some of the ones that nurseries and reception classes use, just to check them out, you know.

Siân: Indeed. You could test a pre-defined selection of apps. And / or if you have the technical know-how construct some that are less gender-biased and see what effect those have on gender bias.

Would this project and the results be of interest to the academic community?

PSG C: It’s one thing doing it because we’re interested but if the wider world isn’t interested then maybe this isn’t the topic?

PSG A: it’s a good question – but it begs another question – are we doing this for the academic community, or for parents? (Or both, or someone else!)

Playing devil’s advocate – does it matter if the academic community aren’t interested, if parents are?

PSG C: Yes, that’s true. It might be easier to recruit any expert help we need though if it could contribute to further studies/link with ‘missing’ research. But, you’re right – what the group wants is more important.

PSG H: We’re all interested so it stands to reason others will be too 🙂

Siân: I think this would be of interest to academics yes – esp. re: the newer media (apps et al.).


Could we or would we group families by social class/beliefs etc?

PSG H: Husband and I have reversed some traditional gender roles (he cooks and cleans). Also I am really interested in being as aware as I can be on gender bias.

Is this another pro for our group?

Oo I just had a thought! It might well be worth measuring.

Have any of our questions been so thoroughly researched already, they’re not worth pursuing?

PSG A: Or, do you suspect any of them would be particularly tricky for us to do as a citizen science group?

Siân: I’m not sure about the Early Years staff questions: they would be interesting but I don’t think they play to your strengths and would be difficult to execute ethically.

I think playing with the gender messages you give your children – and the effects that this has on gender bias would be an awesome thing to look at 🙂

PSG L: I do like the idea of doing something about gender messages.

Siân: You could either manipulate the messages in books etc. or accompanying toys – or try teaching your children some gender nonconsistent things and see what they do with that….
You could also take account of the type of family / gender roles you perform as parents – and see if that has an influence.

Siân: It would be super-easy to construct an online survey to measure your child’s gender bias

PSG E: Will greater number of variables make it harder?

Siân: Nope I don’t think so. They are worth including so that they can be accounted for statistically later. Only downside is having more questions in the survey than not measuring them.

PSG G: What kind of sample size might we need to do this conclusively?

Siân: If you’re testing effects before and after (measure bias: read book / play with toy /: measure bias) minimum of 20 of each age being looked at.

PSG G: Siân: – would that be Year age group for older kids? Would younger ones be split more than that?

Siân: There aren’t hard and fast rules – year group would be a good indicator, certainly.. You could split further if you had reason to suspect a developmental change within a given year group – or aggregate across year groups (key stages) if there was no reason to suspect a developmental change.

What do you think of the idea of raising children gender neutral? Is it possible?

Siân: It is done in preschools in Sweden – where gender pronouns are banned
…finding is that children gender stereotype less than when gendered pronouns are used.

PSG C: Those Swedes always seem to get it right!

PSG D: But the children are still growing up in a gendered society. Albeit maybe less gendered than other ones!

Is there much research looking at whether there are ages at which children are more susceptible to gender bias?

Siân: Children become aware of their gender aged 2/3 years – after that they are very susceptible to messages – and prefer same sex friends til they are 11 years…

So they have the additional influence of those friends, too. Critical thinking doesn’t kick in till much later…

PSG G: During primary age years or later?!

Siân: Aged 12 years plus is when children start to be able to think more abstractly about things

PSG E: I read about children being the strongest policers of gender stereotypes. Did we include peers as potential strongest influencers?
PSG G:I think we thought about it but not sure we had any experiment ideas?

PSG N: So this could be one of the variables that are looked at in whichever question(s) are taken forward, depending on sample sizes?

Siân: You could certainly include family variables in any survey based study

What one piece of advice do you wish you’d had before planning your first experiment?

Siân: Test your measures with a pilot group before rolling them out across a big study…?
Do the participants understand them as you do…?

PSG D: That sounds like very good advice!

That’s all folks!

PSG A: Thanks so much for joining us Siân: – you’ve given us lots to think about!

Siân: Thanks everyone – you’re a great group!

PSG A: Totally agree, a great group! Now – to make a great study!

PSG E: So exciting!



Siân: I think the conclusion here is to look at messages in different media and measure children’s gender stereotyping / gender bias

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