Sirli Peeduli (Tallinn University)
As I grew older, a certain indisposition about imposed gender roles stayed within me. Probably for that reason I did not pay much attention in our homemaking (home economics) class in elementary school. I wanted to take the woodwork class with the boys. I know for certain that many girls felt exactly the same way.
Naffziger & Naffziger (1974: 255) confirm that “the institution of the school helps to reinforce stereotypes”. They explain that some classes are still sex-segregated, for instance physical education, home economics and woodwork classes. They bring out, that while physical eduction for boys is about competitive team sports and physical activity then for girls it is about docility and proper posture. From my own school years I remember that physical education was not so sex-segregated, the activities of boys and girls were relatively similar. Nevertheless, there was still too much segregation, the home economics and woodwork classes could have been combined to offer uniform knowledge to the students.
As Martin & Halverson (1981) claim, stereotyping is important for efficient information processing. Albert & Porter (1988) suggest that children become aware of gender stereotypes and associate social power, aggression and dominance with males and ‘nurturant’ behaviour with the female gender. They go on to explain that as the child grows older, he begins to notice more gender stereotypes. “Children in any society are thus likely to share common, obvious, and consistent patterns associated with male and female behaviour in that society” (Albert & Porter 1988: 189).
In this posting, I give an overview of the basic play practices which were common in Soviet Estonia. I have also brought out two of the most common theories about how children learn gender stereotypical knowledge and how toys are linked with this.
Martin, Eisenbud & Rose (1995) explain that cognitive-developmental theory states that gender-role acquisition is based on the idea, that social roles are acquired by the means of socialisation. Gender stereotypes give children knowledge about how representatives of a specific sex should act, look and even think. These stereotypes are given to children by gender labelling of objects and activities.
Social learning theory, as Serbin et al. (1993) propose, has been less concerned with the cognitive aspects of sex-role development, focusing instead on the acquisition of sex typed behaviour. Allegedly, children obtain these traits gradually over time, while observing others, who possess these traits. Thus, social learning theory is not about labelling objects, instead, it is about obtaining the knowledge through observing others who are engaged in gender-specific activities.
Appadurai (1986) has said that objects are in an interest area for many disciplines, anthropology is just one of them. This is also true in this case– as we are talking about children here, toys play an important part. In the case of cognitive-developmental theory, toys become agents, through which gender-based knowledge is given by labelling. On the other hand, with the social learning theory, the activities acted out with the toy become most important. It was also explained how the two theories should be combined. When we combine these theories that is when, in my opinion, we get a real idea of how children acquire gender based knowledge. In all cases, toys play a crucial part.
I claim that it is true that toys influence how children get gender stereotypical knowledge and make decisions about what is appropriate to their gender. But I also think that there are many more influences. For instance, being involved in an activity with someone else.
One of the interesting things I have found out from the interviews was the ingenuity of the children during the Soviet occupation. The shortage and similarity of toys was resolved in an interesting way. An exchange, whether permanent or impermanent, took place among the children. But what is most interesting about it, is that not only toys were the object of exchange, it was more common to swap small toys for objects with almost no value, for instance, chewing gum wrappers.
In some groups, objects like chewing gum and candy wrappers, as well as bottle-caps, had obtained a relatively fixed value. I call it fictive money, because in the eyes of these children, it might as well could have been money. Peter, a man from the first age group, explained that money holds no value to children, they do not know what to do with it (Peter 27.01.2012).
Some material objects, however, hold much more value to them. Daniel Miller (2001) has written about how things, material objects, gain importance in our lives. They begin to have social meanings. In that case it is understandable, that objects like chewing gum wrappers are more important to children than money. I tried to find some material about the phenomenon of fictive money, but to my own surprise, I could not find much relevant information. In my opinion, it shows that the practice of exchange of toys and fictive money is not as common elsewhere.
From my own childhood I remember something fairly similar – we used to change stickers. But in my opinion, that is very much different, because these were bought from the store with that intention in mind. In the ’90s there were some other toys that were meant for exchange as well. Unlike those toys, the objects used as fictive money were not meant to be used like this originally. It was a spontaneous invention by the children themselves.
What will also count as ingenuity, is the fact that many children built toys for themselves. I noticed this kind of activities more with boys, who usually built slingshots, blowguns and other weapons. Model cars were not built so often, probably because it was somewhat more difficult. All women I interviewed told me that they made doll clothes themselves, as a girl. They might as well have made rag dolls, but none of my interviewees mentioned anything about that. This does not mean that rag doll were not made, it meant, that it was not as widespread.
From the materials I read, I found something similar, to self made toys. Namely, from Chins (1999) article about ethnically correct dolls, it became clear, that children modify their toys to suit the situation. In the article, Chin brings out that children made clothes for toys and altered their appearance, so that they would look ethnically correct. Although, toys were not ethnically modified here, the local children still modified the appearance of their toys, because the selection was small and all dolls looked alike.