Riley Fedorchuk holds out two kites, one branded with Lightning McQueen, a smiling red race car from the Disney movie Cars. The other is covered in Barbies, swirling around in their pretty princess dresses.

“The Barbie one is mine,” says big sister Megan, partly because she doesn’t want her 2-year-old brother to snatch her toys, and partly “because I love Barbies.”

The 5-year-old is perched delicately on a love seat in her living room, wearing a pink T-shirt, a pink bow in her hair and a shy smile. Her Cabbage Patch doll, Samira, sits in her lap.

Megan is a beautiful girl. Her brother is a big, strong boy. To describe them is to use words loaded with gender. And if you look for it, their lives are filled with gender cues too.

How gender forms, and if that matters, has become one of many discussion threads sprung from the story of Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker. The parents aren’t revealing the sex of their 4-month-old, Storm, in the hope it may mitigate the “millions of messages” children receive about how they should look and act according to what’s expected of males and females.

Some experts believe boys and girls learn how to act based on society’s expectations. Others say it’s something more innate.

In a 2002 study, Texas-based psychologist Gerianne Alexander found male monkeys gravitated to “boy toys” and female monkeys to “girl toys.” Eight years later, a study by Pennsylvania State University professor Eric Lyndsey concluded that children in the same family have different experiences when they play with their mothers and fathers, who, in turn, teach children about gender roles and reinforce gender patterns. California-based psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, author of Gender Born, Gender Made, sees gender as a web in which children can move up and down or side to side.

Most parents aren’t sure how gender forms. Their kids just like what they like.

“Truthfully I really don’t care,” says mom Corinne McDermott, an “unabashed girlie girl.” She’s more concerned about raising Megan and Riley as confident, self-assured kids.

McDermott adds that she and her husband, Darcy Fedorchuk, both ascribe to what they see as gender norms. And that doesn’t bother her.

Earlier this week, the Star tagged along with McDermott and her children on a typical day, just to see how children and parents interact with gender on a daily basis.

On a stroll down Danforth Ave. Riley doesn’t miss a beat. He points out a total of five motorcycles, his favourite thing in the world. McDermott says he gravitated to cars and trucks from the beginning. Unlike his sister, Riley is riveted by anything that moves.

Around 9 a.m., at Shopper’s Drug Mart, McDermott points to the pull-up diapers. The boys’ are branded with cars, the girls’ with princesses. There’s extra absorbency in both, but in different spots, where boys and girls need it most.

While there are those who believe gendered marketing pushes girls and boys into binary stereotypes, the Child Mind Institute’s Harold Koplewicz says he doesn’t think it makes a difference. “We know there are differences between boys and girls from the moment they are born,” says the president of the New York-based organization that works to build the science of brain development in children.

While there are exceptions to the norm, Koplewicz says language development occurs earlier in girls, and motor development earlier in boys. “In general, boys seem to be more energetic and move around more than girls do, which may explain why boys are into more rough-and-tumble play.”

In the sandbox at East Lynn Park, the girls play with pales and shovels, building castles. The boys bash the sand with trucks and diggers. McDermott has to stay close to Riley because he has a habit of clobbering playmates.

Fellow mom Michelle Shriver is there with her kids. “I tend to do boy things with my boys,” she says, adding that gender roles aren’t rigid in her household.

Her son Cyrus, for example, used to put on his sister’s dresses. “Boys don’t wear dresses because they only wear jeans,” the 4-year-old pipes up.

While most of the parents the Star spoke with said they felt there was something innate about how their kids express their gender, the moms and dads still grapple with outside influences, navigating and negotiating how to protect their kids from unhealthy stereotypes.

Stay-at-home dad Cameron Gunn watches over 16-month-old Gwendolyn as she climbs on the jungle gym. Gunn and his wife struggle with some gendered messages, so they employ their own coping mechanisms.

“The princess message for girls, I think it’s a very narrow view of how the world should be,” he says. It’s not that they don’t read Cinderella, he adds, but they alternate with The Paper Bag Princess. When the Berenstein Bears say junk food will make you fat, they substitute “unhealthy” to promote a positive body image. And they encourage their 4-year-old boy to be nurturing.

At 11 a.m. Megan gets picked up from school. In the playground a group of boys play with trucks. A group of girls huddle together, talking and laughing.

She skips home. As soon as she walks in the door, Megan takes out her Polly Pocket house. Her brother is playing with a toy dump truck. Then she makes necklaces and bracelets out of colourful beads. It’s a timeless tableau of a brother and sister playing together with different kinds of favourite toys.

McDermott and Fedorchuk explain that their kids are free to choose non-traditional paths in life, but that there’s nothing wrong with them wanting to fit what’s expected of a boy or a girl. As a mother, McDermott admits she fears the road will be difficult if her kids flout social norms.

Megan knows what “girl toys” are: Polly Pocket, My Little Pony and Barbie, she says. Star Wars and Transformers are boy’s toys, although she knows she can play with those too if she wants.

Still, she prefers to put on dance performances to the soundtrack from a Beatrix Potter movie. Her brother likes to kick soccer balls and clobber people in the sandbox.

Source: Toronto Star –