Whether your son is a nature-lover, a bookworm or a bona fide "bad" boy, toys being marketed to him seem to fall into one of a handful of categories: violence, sports or popular media, such as movies and TV shows.
Violence and sports are nothing new in these types of toys—in fact, the "boys" section of Toys 'R Us is littered with play weapons and hyper-muscled figurines, usually with a tie-in to a popular movie or TV show. All too often, these toys encourage aggressive behavior, discourage open-ended play and don't foster positive character traits typically associated with girls, such as compassion and cooperation. If you're looking to give your son a way to express himself and expand his imagination, think twice before picking up these "gendered" playthings at the toy store.
- GI Joe Black Ops Combat Squad Shockwave Action Figure ($29.99) Rather than honoring the men and women who serve in the military, this toy glorifies covert, illegal and dangerous military actions. This figurine—dehumanized by a face mask—is ready for battle with guns, grenades and even a missile launcher. If your kid's awed by the armed services, consider buying him the GI Joe Firefighter ($29.99) instead; this community helper is an American hero who promotes peaceful problem solving instead of resorting to heavy artillery.
- WWE Wrestling Ring Punjabi Prison Match Playset ($47.95) It's no secret that little boys like watching opponents square off in the ring, but this prison-themed playset takes wrestling from the stage to the slammer, making it inappropriate for your budding do-gooder. This toy celebrates the ruthlessness of prison yard brawls, and encourages no-holds-barred violence that your kid could try to recreate with his friends. Instead, look for a wrestling toy that comes with a referee to remind your little one that even organized fighting sports have rules to make sure no one is seriously hurt.
- 28" Gangster Tommy Machine Gun ($21.95) Let's face it: all toy guns promote violence. However, by purchasing this particular model—complete with a rocket launcher and bayonet—you're also glorifying the role of assault weapon-wielding gangsters, as opposed to a more responsible gun-toting police officer or cowboy. Any type of toy gun is a bit iffy, because if your little one thinks of guns as toys, he won't know what to do should he ever come across a real firearm. If you're looking to teach gun safety, it's best to enroll him in a program such as 4-H Shooting Sports where he can learn in a safe, controlled environment.
- Bandai's Power Rangers Samurai Mega Blade ($26.99) Cutting, hacking and stabbing is a pretty gory way to play, no matter which way you slice it. This model is particularly dangerous because it's heavy and boasts an extremely sharp point. In fact, this toy's so risky that it made the World Against Toys Causing Harm (W.A.T.C.H.) 2011 list of worst toys. If your little guy really wants to take a stab at sword fighting, the NERF N-FORCE Stonewall Shield and Sword ($19.99) provides him with a softer, safer alternative as well as a means to defend himself.
- EZ Riders Harley Style Wild Child Motorcycle ($149.99) Tame your kid's "wild" impulses by avoiding this mini-hog altogether. Toy vehicles aren't necessarily a bad thing, but automatically assuming that boys like anything with an engine plays into a macho gender stereotype. If your kid really wants a motorcycle of his own and he's got a safe place to ride it around, the Kid Motorz Police Motorcycle ($269.00) will at least allow him to role-play on the right side of the law.
- "Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe" ($19.99) It's no secret that bloody video games inspire aggression in children, but a recent study published by the American Psychological Association shows that highly competitive games also cause kids to be aggressive. This game of battling superheroes, which is both violent and competitive, was used in the study. Instead, pick up a copy of The Sims 3 ($29.99). This gore-free, non-competitive game encourages your little guy to create his own person, build him a home, and interact with other "Sims" while practicing real-world skills.
- LEGO Duplo Disney Pixar Cars 2 Tokyo Racing ($49.98) This LEGO set seems pretty harmless at first glance, but it actually discourages creativity, since it dictates what kids can build and how they can play. Skip this plaything, featured on the 2011-2012 list of Toys and Trends to Avoid, published by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment (TRUCE), in favor of the non-movie-themed LEGO Duplo Building Set ($29.99). With this set, the possibilities are endless. He can build fortresses, lost civilizations, houses, or anything he likes. This way, his imagination is telling the story—not Disney.
If you're looking for gender-neutral toys to get your kid's creative juices flowing, avoid overly violent, branded toys that can't be played with in multiple ways. Stuffed animals, blocks, LEGOs and art supplies are all great examples of gender-neutral, creative playthings.
In a society saturated with antiquated ideas about what little boys "should" play with, trying to nurture so-called "feminine" traits—such as compassion and cooperation—can feel like fighting an uphill battle. But remember that despite what anyone else thinks, your child's much better off with a parent who understands that raising a well-rounded, happy kid is more important than conforming to gender norms.