The other day, my seven-year-old son asked me for a Rainbow Loom. If you don’t know what that is, you don’t have children under age twelve. The Rainbow Loom is the toy of the season, a contraption for making the woven rubber bracelets that rise in stacks around grade school kids’ arms as they incessantly make them, trade them, and give them to their friends. The Rainbow Loom craze began in the summer, and unlike other fads, it has not yet abated, despite the decision of two public elementary schools in New York City to ban them.
When I expressed surprise at my son’s request—my son’s interests usually run more toward baseball and football—he was nonchalant. “All the boys in my class have one,” he said, and even accounting for kids’ invariably-inflated claims about what “all” their classmates have, since our conversation I have noticed that this is one toy that does seem genuinely gender-neutral.
There was nine-year-old son of a friend, for example, who told his mother that “no one talks anymore about Minecraft”—the hugely popular online building game—because they’re too busy talking about hexafishes and zippy chains, two of the more complicated Rainbow Loom bracelet designs (there are an infinite number, he recommends Ashley on YouTube’s demonstration.) And there was the friend who posted on Facebook about her tween son’s response when she gently teased him about giving a bracelet to a female classmate. “Mom, it’s not love, it’s just Rainbow Loom,” he said with an eye roll.
If boys are indeed embracing the distinctly feminine activity of making jewelry, it’s big news, and not just for the bottom line of toy stores across the country. Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display. As neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: “There’s a good reason why parents so often comment on boys’ and girls’ different toy preferences: this is one of the largest differences between the sexes that psychologists have uncovered.” In one study from Sweden, Eliot writes, “97 percent of boys were likelier to spend their time playing with toy vehicles, balls, and weapons than the average girl, when given a choice between those or stereotypical feminine toys. This difference is much, much larger than any of the cognitive or personality differences between the sexes.”
What’s delighting a certain set of parents about boys’ affinity for Rainbow Loom is that it requires quiet concentration and fine motor skills to string tiny rubber bands onto a loom and then essentially crochet them with an equally diminuative hook. The overwhelming preference of boys for things they can throw or smash, and of girls for things they craft or groom, is “fascinating, but also misleading,” Lise Eliot points out. Parents and teachers often point to play behavior as a representative difference between the sexes—“See, boys and girls are different, and there’s not much we can do about it”—when really play behavior is an outlier. In every other way, girls and boys are much more similar to each other.
In her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, cultural critic Peggy Orenstein elaborates on this point: “Toy choice turns out to be one of the largest differences between the sexes over the entire life span, bigger than anything except the preference (among most of us) for the other sex as romantic partners. But its timing and intensity shore up every assumption and stereotype we adults hold: little boys naturally like backhoes, ergo men won’t ask for directions. That blinds us to the larger truth of how deeply those inborn biases are reinforced by a child’s environment.”
So if even “one of the largest differences between the sexes that psychologists have uncovered” is now yielding to the call of the Rainbow Loom, perhaps it’s a sign that there may be hope for gender equality yet.