Is it strange for boys to play with dolls? Even for parents who generally shun gender stereotypes, the idea of a boy playing with his dolly seems slightly off. But why?
In a humorous essay for Mothering (subscription required), Joel Troxell struggles with his wife’s insistence on buying a doll for their one-year-old son Nathan. Though the doll is gender-neutral in shape and dress, Troxell feels the need to compensate for this “affront to his masculinity” by telling Nathan that the doll is actually an operative for the US military, and his neutral facial expression means he’s impervious to fear or pain.
Nathan quickly grows tired of the doll, much to his dad’s secret delight. A few months later, however, Nathan’s mom is back at it, looking for bigger and better dolls. Troxell’s “daydreams of Nathan going first round in the NFL draft [are] replaced by disturbing images of him walking across the stage at graduation, sucking his thumb and carrying his doll.”
The author finds that doll play is still associated with outdated gender roles in his mind. He thinks of playing with dolls as childcare practice for girls (a.k.a. future moms and wives), and toy weapons as encouraging boys to develop the hunting skills they’d need to provide for their families.
Eventually, Troxell learns the benefits of boys with dolls: They teach compassion, sensitivity, and responsibility, as well as a practical knowledge of things like holding and feeding a baby. So in reality, Troxell’s wife points out, giving a boy a doll is giving him practice as a good father and a good person who is ready to care for others.
To the kid, his dolly may later be a source of future embarrassment, much like those ubiquitous naked-in-the-tub pictures. But if the values imbued through playing with a “girl’s toy” hold up, he’ll likely have grown to be well-adjusted enough not to care.
Mothering’s archives include another great essay (free) on a mom’s quest for a doll for her son.