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Why boys should play with dolls

No one is surprised about seeing dads with strollers anymore, yet biases with toys persist.

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As Black Friday deals approach, I’ve been spending time thinking about my 7-year-old’s Christmas wish list. Thankfully, it’s short and sweet: a Beanie Boo, a Hess truck, Star Wars LEGOs, a LeapPad, a baby doll.

The fact that this is a boy’s list might spark some surprise, since it includes a classic “girl” toy, a baby doll to nurture. But today we’re on the cusp of a new children’s culture in which delineations between so-called girls’ and boys’ toys — between dolls and diesel trucks — won’t exist.

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My son spends equal time playing with boys and girls and delights in playing house and video games alike. “Toys are for everybody,” he insists with admirable stubbornness.

But not everyone sees it that way. This summer, I appeared on the radio show NightSide With Dan Rea to discuss Target’s decision to stop labeling toy aisles for boys or girls. People from across the country phoned in, incensed. Many callers claimed that those of us who supported Target’s decision wanted to make “boys and girls the same,” arguing that we were promoting some kind of unisex, androgynous dystopia.

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And since this was August, in the middle of a nationwide panic over transsexuals’ bathroom use, it was no surprise that even homophobia and transphobia reared their ugly heads. The first caller presented himself as a trans woman and insisted Target needed to mix men and women’s apparel together so that he’d feel better about himself — then revealed he wasn’t trans at all; he was just making a point. Ha-ha. Subsequent callers suggested Target’s decision was the first step toward eliminating separate restrooms altogether, at which point all hell would break loose, and they pledged to boycott the chain.

The UK advocacy group Let Toys Be Toys is frequently on the receiving end of similar complaints, among them the concern that playing with dolls will make boys gay. That is no less absurd than the fear-mongering claim that sexual predators would pretend to be trans to infiltrate women’s bathrooms.

In rejecting the idea that certain toys are sex-specific, my first-grader is in fine company. International campaigns from Let Toys Be Toys and No Gender December have raised awareness that segregated toy aisles reinforce unhealthy stereotypes, as developmental psychologists assert that boys whose play defies gender stereotypes reap significant benefits.

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“Boy toys are often developed and marketed to promote aggression and competition while girl toys promote nurturing and relationship building,” notes Jennifer Shewmaker, associate professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University. “Healthy people know how to balance all of these traits. Giving boys the chance to explore nurturing and connecting with others opens up opportunities for them to build important life skills.”

Unfortunately, boys have been discouraged from playing with “girl” items for decades, treated with contempt and told dolls are for “sissies.” My 84-year-old father, after reading my article in this magazine on the gender marketing of toys, recalled how badly he wanted a beautiful doll he saw in a shop window during his childhood. Dad asked me earnestly, “Do you think Nana did the right thing or was she wrong to tell me no?”

I replied that Nana was probably right, given the cultural norms of the era — but eight decades later, times have changed. What was right in 1935 is wrong today. We expect modern fathers to nurture and tend their children. When boys play with dolls, they are practicing parenthood, just like girls are.

“No one would be surprised to see a dad with a stroller these days,” says Jess Day, who works on the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, “so it’s just odd that some people are still surprised or troubled at the idea of a boy with a dolly.”

It’s not the same for girls. In bygone decades, they were discouraged from playing with toy cars and Erector Sets. But thanks to feminist consciousness-raising and the rise of women in traditionally male careers, encouraging girls’ use of “boy” toys — such as LEGO and other objects that foster STEM skills — is now seen as progress.

Engaging boys with dolls and other “girl” toys lags far behind. Just as child-rearing is often (and wrongly) regarded as less valuable than a high-powered career, so, too, are girls’ toys seen as relatively trivial, unworthy of boys’ attention.

“People are often more troubled by the idea of boys playing with ‘girls’’ toys than the other way around,” Day continues. “Our culture values masculine things more highly, so it’s OK for a girl to aspire to boy things, but a boy choosing to lower himself by playing with a toy iron or reading a book about family or friendship makes some people very uncomfortable.”

So what difference can a single family make? Quite a bit, says Jo Hadley of kids’ clothing brand Handsome in Pink. “A simple act like giving your son a doll to love when he is a boy can make a difference,” she tells me. “It’s redefining ‘boy’ for him in a personal way and letting him know his family doesn’t agree with the mainstream message.”

That’s why Santa will bring my son both a truck and a doll for Christmas. There’s no good reason he shouldn’t have both and lots of healthy reasons why he should.

Rebecca Hains is an associate professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University, where she serves as assistant director of the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies. She’s co-editor of the new anthology “Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Identities and Imaginations.”
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