IT was the feminist and civil rights movements that first spurred parents to think about how the design, packaging, and advertising of children's toys reflect societal values.
A thoughtful look at what was commercially available 20 years ago brought a recognition that pervasive sex-role stereotyping of toys promoted passivity in girls and aggression in boys; that there was precious little with which any child of color could identify positively.
The toy industry has changed in the intervening years - some would say for the better, others for the worse. What has not changed is that a good deal of thought and effort is needed in choosing toys that teach the values we want children to learn.
Toy shopping for school-age children is much more difficult than for preschoolers. Although it is possible to find nonsex-stereotyped, racially balanced, nonviolence-oriented toys for school-age children, they are comparatively scarce.
In wanting to choose toys that will please children, parents often face what feels like manipulation from toy manufacturers themselves. One reason for this is that when it comes to deciding what toys to make for older children, manufacturers see children, not parents, as the consumer group they aim first to woo and then to satisfy.
Fisher-Price, one company that has made impressive changes in its preschool line, continues to market sex-specific toys for older children. ''Once children go to school, in order for us to stay in business we must satisfy the consumer demand for sex-specific toys,'' says Carol Blackley, manager of public relations at Fisher-Price.
Ms. Blackley's argument is echoed throughout the industry. Most companies still divide their school-age products into those sold to girls and those sold to boys, citing market research that shows each is a different consumer group with its own, usually traditional, sex-stereotypical preferences.
A good example is a robotics toy called a Transformer. Made by Hasbro Industries, Transformers are the hottest selling boys' toy this Christmas. Dan Owen, Hasbro's vice-president for marketing, attributes the toy's phenomenal popularity in large part to the fact that it's based on a winner-loser model of behavior. ''It's aggressive and action-oriented, the thing boys are probably into most.''
The sales history of another Hasbro product, G. I. Joe action figures, shows that parent and child consumers are not immune to the tenor of the times. These small dolls, depicting a paramilitary, antiterrorist force, were first introduced during the anti-Vietnam protests of the '60s. They did not do well. While Mr. Owen says that the toy's size and price are the reasons it was taken off the market, he is quick to say that today's political climate is why the recently reintroduced, scaled-down model is selling so well. ''Patriotism is pride in your country. That's stronger now than it's been in the last 15 years.''
Not only must parents take into account that traditional sex stereotypes and the events in the larger society alter their school-age children's toy preferences, they must also contend with the effects of advertising. Even when limits are set on the amount of television viewing, the influence of TV ads sometimes seems overwhelming. One way to offset this influence is to think of the barrage of pre-Christmas advertising as an opportunity to educate children in how to be more intelligent consumers, suggests Suzanne West, family life development specialist and director of the nursery school in the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell University.
A place to start might be watching some ads with children and then talking together about why there are so many more toy ads right now, about the different kinds of activities these toys promote, and about the quality and durability of the toys' designs. This gives an opportunity for children to explore how their own family's values compare with those of the society as represented by particular toy companies. Later, if a child is given a toy you've both watched commercials for, evaluating whether the real thing is as good as it looked on TV can be a big step in learning to treat TV ads with healthy skepticism.
Another way to counteract the influence of advertising is to buy gifts in the shops associated with museums, aquariums, botanical gardens, and other noncommercial institutions your family has enjoyed visiting together. The toys, games, and books sold in these shops are less racist and sexist, according to Geraldine L. Wilson, board member and writer for the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Remembering what particularly interested a child during a visit gives clues to what would be an appreciated gift.
Shopping for preschoolers is much easier, because they are less influenced by television and because the greatest industrywide changes have occurred in toys designed for younger children. Manufacturers clearly see parents as the consumers they must please.
Ms. Blackley, from Fisher-Price, cites product changes such as the expansion of the F-P soft doll line to include dolls that are male and female, black, white, and brown-skinned, with a range of hair colors, because of requests from both black and white consumers. Naming these dolls ''My Friend'' is in contrast to a language bias prevalent in the industry, where dolls made for girls are called dolls, while those made for boys are called action figures.
The Japanese-owned Tomy Corporation is another company that has responded to changing consumer preferences in toys for preschoolers.
''The fact that parents are now buying dolls for little boys and computer-type toys for little girls reflects a change in role-modeling within their own families,'' says Mary Woodworth-Haglund, Tomy's public relations manager.
According to Ms. Woodworth-Haglund, parents have let the company know that they want both toy packaging and marketing to be representative of what actually happens in their own homes. Tomy has changed its preschool products accordingly.
Parental behavior not only affects the products toy companies offer preschoolers, but it is also a much stronger influence on the toy preferences of younger children. Parents should not underestimate the impact of their own behavior here, says Jennifer Birckmayer, a parent education specialist with New York State Cooperative Extension. Unless flexible roles are practiced at home, giving children toys generally associated with the opposite sex brings confusion , not expanded play options. ''Young children are more likely to do, or want to do, what they see the adults around them actually doing, regardless of what those adults may believe or say.''
Ms. Birckmayer suggests that the critical question a parent should ask when picking out a toy is, ''Why am I choosing this toy?'' If the answer fits both your own value system and your own behavior, then the toy is likely to be the right one for your child.