Inez Ponce de Leon - Artist, Writer, Scholar, Educator

Inez's Diary: Don't label my toys!

I have never raised children, so approach the following essay with caution.

But let me start with the long and short of it: I absolutely resent anyone who attempts to put children's toys into exclusive boxes, and who pushes the idea that girls should play only with pink dolls and boys should play only with blue cars - and never shall these children play with each other's toys.

This resentment has long since been bottled, and it started to bubble over when I began shopping for toys for my baby niece. I would look at little trucks, blocks, and planes, and a salesperson would oh-so-kindly approach me to ask the now dreaded question.

"Is this toy for a boy or a girl?"

The first time I answered the question, I was led away from the blocks and cars - and to a shelf decked in layers of silk-clad, heavily made up dolls. There was so much pink in the room, my eyes started to bleed.

All I could think of was: HELL NO.

I grew up on a collection of die-cast miniature bulldozers and steamrollers, which I parked at farmhouses I constructed out of Lego blocks. Barbie and her friends had parties with Lego men, and Barbie taught them all about science. I could not - and still cannot - relate to the idea that some toys must simply be for girls, while others are for boys... Especially not when I credit Lego for fostering my love for mapping out my novels and building castles for my characters.

I had a kingdom of toys to help me construct my stories: these stories would eventually be my respite from school and work, my means of earning a living, my release. Happiness spurred me to write, as did sadness, and frustration, and anger, and love. My writing was born from a childhood of princesses, castles of red, yellow, and blue blocks, and green plastic fields with white and yellow flowers.

Every child should have that chance, to play make believe, to build worlds. No world exists with fluffy-skirted princesses alone, and neither is there a world filled with only cars and fire trucks.

I remember a rather frustrating SkyCable commercial. If you haven't seen it, then picture this: A little boy has his TV on, showing a backdrop of skyscrapers. In his hands are two dinosaurs, which he pits against each other, complete with his own voice-over of growls and snarls.

His mother walks in, looks at him as though in pity, and then asks, "Do you want to order dinosaurs for lunch?"

The boy puts his toys down, creases his little forehead, and says, uneasily, in his tiny voice, "Oookay?"

His mother calls SkyCable and asks for Animal Planet. The TV starts blasting out dinosaur shows. The kid is pleased. The mom is happy. Everyone's smiling.

Not me.

That kid was using his imagination. He was making do with what resources he had in order to produce a little dinosaur fight in his living room. He already had a story, a fight, and creatures populating the universes of his creation. He didn't need TV. He had all the tools he needed for a story, a play, an afternoon of fun.

I make stories, too. I write out worlds, imagine lives, listen to dialogues and document them. I had so many tools from my childhood. No child should have these tools forced upon them. No child should have just one kind of toy when the world outside is far more complex and diverse.

Maybe kids should learn to play outside again. The girls don't have to be the only ones playing house, and the boys don't have to be the only ones playing football. And if the streets are to dangerous, then the kids need to build their worlds indoors - but please don't make them play with toys labeled "for boys" or "for girls" just because the toy store thinks that socially constructed labels and conventions have to be followed to the letter.

The next time a salesperson asks me, "Is this toy for a boy or a girl?" I am SO going to respond with a dry, smile-laced sentence.

"Why do you ask?"