Imagine, if you will, a playroom stocked with toys, stuffed animals, dolls, and trunks and trunks of dress-up clothes. Two children, a boy and a girl, race into the room, eager to dig in. The boy makes a beeline for a doll, and the girl goes straight for the racetrack.
Now consider the following: if we told the girl that playing with the racetrack were unacceptable and encouraged her to play with the dress-up clothes instead, we’d be considered sexist. Yet at the same time, some of the individuals who’d call us sexist would have no qualms taking the doll away from the boy and steering him toward the more masculine toys.
What gives? Why isn’t it just as inappropriate to dissuade a boy from playing with dolls as it is to dissuade a girl from playing with traditionally masculine toys?
Research has noted that baby boys tend to be more attached to their mothers than baby girls, but societal norms overwhelm natural gentility in favor of masculinity and toughness. Most cultures teach boys at a young age that playing with “girl” toys, like dolls and tea sets, make them “sissies.” Moreover, some parents still hold onto the misguided notion that boys who play with dolls are destined to grow up gay. The more likely explanation is that dolls are a reflection of natural tendencies. In other words, playing with dolls is an effect, not a cause.
Not all boys gravitate toward dolls. Some boys, it seems, are hard-wired to prefer toys that are more traditionally geared towards boys. Other boys eschew dolls in favor of the masculine analogue, action figures.
It has been said that play is a child’s work and that children learn through play. Open-ended play, like the kind of play that dolls naturally elicit, is especially beneficial for growth. Moreover, there are many distinct skills that are necessary for proper development that dolls encourage, including:
- Pretend play
- Fine motor skills (through feeding and dressing)
- Language skills
- Social skills
By age 3 or 4, boys who play with dolls tend to take on the role of the father figure, interacting with the dolls in ways that their fathers interact with them. Dolls allow boys to work through emotions and explore scenarios, such as bedtime. Dolls also help children release tension. Hitting a doll may not seem very nice, but it can be a much more positive release than hitting a sibling or pet. This also allows you the opportunity to correct bad behavior without anyone getting hurt.
In the end, parents should just encourage their children, both male and female, to play with what interests them. Research indicates that people who have both male and female personality traits earn more money and are happier in life than those who adhere to strictly-defined masculine and feminine roles. Regardless, parents shouldn’t be upset if they find their son rocking a doll. Instead, take comfort in knowing that some day that little boy will grow up to be a kind, nurturing adult.