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My two-year-old loves trains. He really loves trains, especially steam engines, like Thomas.

Many other parents have said that their boys love (or loved) trains, and I can remember being enamoured with Ivor the Engine as a boy.

Why do boys love trains and cars so much?

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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Kids are hardwired to figure out who they are and how they fit in, and by an early age they have figured out gender and what that means - it's one of the first layers of identity. Studies have shown that even when the parents have very liberal gender views, kids still see past that to the wider societal view.

I am not convinced, personally, that this is a huge problem. Children conceptualize very broadly when they are young, and as they mature, they begin to see individual differences. As long as parents are very open to individual differences as their child develops, that early understanding should not be prescriptive of how they must behave, while it will alert them to areas of difficulty they will encounter if they don't conform to norms. This may help them protect themselves from ridicule as they explore identity.

A recent study about gender and toy preference determined that even when parents thought they were not influencing their children's toy choices, the children identified toys by "gender" as ones their parents would approve of or not. Here's an excerpt from the study:

Young Children’s Construction of Gender

Children construct their understandings of gender at an early age. By about 24 months they begin to define themselves as ‘‘girls’’ or ‘‘boys’’ (Kohlberg, 1966; Kohlberg & Ullian, 1974; Sandnabba & Ahlberg, 1999). And they are apt to have rigid definitions of how girls and boys should behave by the age of five (Martin & Ruble, 2004). The acquisition of these gender stereotypes demonstrates that children are very effective students of culture. They quickly learn to categorize ‘‘girl toys’’ and ‘‘boy toys’’ in socially acceptable ways and to behave as they think they ‘‘should’’ (Raag & Rackliff, 1998; Powlishta, Serbin, & Moller, 1993). Preschoolers have been shown, for example, to reliably apply gender stereotypes when responding to questions about how their parents, teachers or babysitters, peers, and siblings would want them to play. Girls know they are expected to play with dish sets and baby dolls and boys know tools, trucks, and cars are for them (Raag & Rackliff, 1998).

The authors of some studies have noted that society’s definition of what is feminine has expanded since the launch of the women’s movement in the early 1970s, but the definition of masculinity has not been similarly revised (Fagot & Littman, 1975). This line of inquiry has documented that while the current generation of girls is more likely to be encouraged to do things that were once considered masculine than were their mothers, the past 20 years has seen both children and adults narrow their definitions of appropriate behavior for boys (Burge, 1981; Cahill & Adams, 1997; Fisher-Thompson, 1990; Martin, 1990; Moulton & Adams-Price, 1997; Turner & Gervai, 1995).

How are Children’s Cross-Gender Behaviors Perceived?

Researchers who describe adults’ and children’s typical responses to cross-gender play consistently report that boys who engage in ‘‘girls’ games’’ are more likely to be criticized by parents, teachers and peers than are girls who enjoy activities and materials labeled as ‘‘for boys’’ (Cahill & Adams, 1997; Martin, 1990; Martin, 1995; Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990). These results have been interpreted as evidence that adults share concerns that boys who exhibit cross-gender behaviors will become increasingly feminine, but believe that girls will outgrow their ‘‘tomboyishness’’ and will become as feminine as their ‘‘typical’’ female peers (Sandnabba & Ahlberg, 1999). It has been documented, moreover, that fathers often more rigidly impose sex role expectations on their sons than on their daughters, and that they are less flexible in their definitions of gender appropriate behaviors than are boys’ mothers (Burge, 1981).

Freeman, Nancy. "Preschoolers’ Perceptions Of Gender Appropriate Toys And Their Parents’ Beliefs About Genderized Behaviors: Miscommunication, Mixed Messages, Or Hidden Truths?" Early Childhood Education Journal 34.5 (2007): 357-366. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

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Great references. I can attest that television commercials, peers, and even toy catalogs are major factors in communicating societal expectations. While I agree it is not necessarily a major problem, it can cause some issues when your son insists that his friend likes anything pink, and all dolls, just because she's a girl. –  Beofett Dec 23 '13 at 13:22
    
It may feel like an issue, but I think it can be an opportunity to teach. One of life's first skills is learning to generalize. Children must learn to classify in order to make sense of the vast stores of information presented to them. They start by generalizing about who they are and who they are not, mainly in the areas of gender and age. We have to be careful to honor their understanding of the world while also teaching them that individuals don't always fit the pattern. A 3-year-old may need the generalization, but by school age should have a better understanding of exceptions. –  Mary Jo Finch Dec 23 '13 at 14:56
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The way your question is worded implies that you see boys liking these toys but not girls.

Modern culture is the reason. There is absolutely no reason for kids not to like trains, and where cultural biases are not too strong, girls love trains and cars just as much.

In general, children should enjoy toys that they can build multiple things from (eg Lego, Meccano, K-Nex etc) but also toys that move. These are all good stimulants for the brain, hand-eye coordination, planning etc.

My middle daughter loved trains, but all my kids love cars. To be fair, I do a lot of motor racing, and they probably got the bug from me, especially when they got their cadet karting licences.

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I Loved playing with my daughter's trainset as much or more than she did. It is one of my favorite things to do with kids - get out the train set! I wish I could +5 for "There is absolutley no reason for kids not to like trains" However, I see the poster's point that boys can get obsessive about them. –  balanced mama Dec 22 '13 at 14:44
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I think anyone can get obsessive. Which is why tamagotchi, top trump cards, pokemon etc all do so well. But the gender bias is entirely cultural. We make sure wherever possible that our kids get no gender steer...which unfortunately means collectibles and other progression toys just keep on building up in their rooms... :-/ –  Rory Alsop Dec 22 '13 at 15:55
    
Oh I agree Rory! Boys just tend to be more known for it, and I'm inclinded to agree that at least in part, it is due to societal training and expectation more than sex of the child. –  balanced mama Dec 22 '13 at 16:02
    
It's true that there may be gender bias in my question, as I don't have any experience with girls (so far). Just observation of my son and his friends. (-: –  Steve HHH Dec 22 '13 at 17:08
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Things you can move are more fun than things that don't move. Wheeled things are unpredictable, wheeled things on tracks somewhat less so. So young children like these things. And parents can encourage it, which makes them like it even more. And anything that is a miniature of the real world things they see (people, vehicles, scenery) or that is on TV also appeals to them.

For the gender aspect, here is a story my sister truly observed. There was some sort of playgroup / playdate / neighbourhood get together with a large pool of toys, some of which were new to some of the kids. She saw a boy giving a doll a ride in the back of a dump truck, and a parent of that boy commented to the air:

Only way you'll see my boy with a doll! Drive it around in the truck!

A short time later she saw a girl giving a doll a ride in the same truck, and another parent, who hadn't witnessed the first incident, remarked:

No matter how many toys there are in a place, my girl goes for the dolls!

So, why is it that boys like trucks and girls like dolls? Hm?

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