Your holiday shopping list for kids

is now half done. Play the video full-screen, it’s a hoot.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

8 thoughts on “Your holiday shopping list for kids”

  1. Is there much evidence that the toy decisions made by parents have an impact upon the future careers of children? Given the tiny proportion of variation in outcomes attributable to parenting in general (and that encompasses much more than what toy your child plays with) I’d be surprised were this the case.

    One possibly interesting calibration scheme for intuitions here is the opposite experiences of male and female gay children. Gay boys are pushed to play with trucks just like straight ones, and lesbians get the princess aisle too. Indeed, gay boys and girls with any gender-nonconforming toy interests are _more_ strongly pushed by parents to play with the “right” set of toys for their sex.

    So let’s look at the double ratio. What is the proportion of gay to straight men in the sciences and engineering, and how does it compare to the proportion of gay to straight women in those fields? My (admittedly anecdotal, small N yada yada) impression is that outcomes are the opposite to what “toy theory” would predict – gay men are rather underrepresented among men in STEM, while gay women are somewhat overrepresented among women. This still leaves open most ideas for gender (or sexual orientation) differences in occupation, but I believe it puts a ceiling on the toy effect upon future career decisions – gay boys (girls) get trucks pushed upon them if anything more (less) but occupational decisions seem to go the other way.

  2. I agree, the likely effect of any one toy is pretty small–as someone else said about this in a blog post I can’t locate now, we can’t buy our way to gender equality. At most it’s a bit of chipping away at a huge problem. And there’s evidence that women who do go into STEM fields are more likely to go into medicine or biology than physics or engineering. But I’ve talked with a lot of freshmen women who were getting no support or encouragement at all from their families because they “should have been” studying nursing or getting teacher training instead of studying IT or computer science. (I’m teaching faculty, computer science dept., public university.) It’s like Computer Engineer Barbie with the bright green geek glasses and pink laptop–it’s not perfect, but I’ll take what progress I can get. Anything that pushes the message they don’t *have* to be princesses is OK with me. But the push for kids to have gender “appropriate” toys is only one small part of the problem, so fixing that is only one small part of the solution.

    And the video *is* fun.

  3. Michael,

    Thanks for the suggestion. And just in time for Chanukah.

    Have you actually bought one of these kits, or seen it in action? OK for an (obviously highly gifted) five-and-half year old, do you think (they say 4 to 9 but I wonder)?

  4. My wife (MA, EE) loved it. She ended up doing computer engineering professionally, instead of electrical engineering, more by finding a good niche and working her way through the system. Her sister is the girly one, with her MD.

    I don’t think the question here is about reinforcing gender roles or not. Who plays with which toys and ends up gay or straight is irrelevant. It’s whether women ever get a sense of all the possibilities they have and the chance to use their imagination to get there, no matter where that might take them.

    No toy is going to guarantee that slot at Stanford, for instance. That sort of reductionism is behind the idea our schools can fix all the kids whose families our society fails to provide for. Where one ends up in life is not so much about the bell curve as it is the income curve in the US. There’s little social mobility and access to high quality education is increasingly governed by pay-to-play, rather than by either competition or egalitarian ideals.

    Perhaps we need toys to inspire the children of the middle class, working class, and poor, too?

  5. I got this toy for my granddaughter for her birthday. I don’t have an opinion on whether it’ll turn her into an engineer; I just don’t want to play with Disney princesses when I go visit.

    1. Amen. But then, I’m not actually allowed to play princesses with my nieces any more. I kept making the dolls behave like real European princesses, and the bloodshed was grossing them out. Except for J___, who loved it and for whom I have great hopes.

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