Friday, August 12, 2011

Baby Dolls, Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

Little Man recently made it abundantly clear to me that he would like a baby doll. Yes, a baby doll. Allow me to explain.

During our "swim tots" class a couple of weeks ago, the instructor was using a floating demonstration doll to show parents how to hold their child for the various exercises we would be doing. Little Man got one glimpse of that floating baby doll and, the second the teacher's attention was averted, he dove for it, yelling, "Baby! Baby!" I could barely keep him from going under water as he attempted to squirm his way over to the floating doll. Once he had the doll in his arms, he kissed her, hugged her, looked at her adoringly and said, "baby" several times more. A few seconds later, it was time to demonstrate the next exercise. The teacher began looking around for the doll, and her eyes eventually settled on Little Man and me. "Sorry," I apologized, with a chuckle. "He seems to like the doll." I tried to hand the doll over to the teacher, but this kid was not letting go. As the entire class watched, I had to pry the baby doll from his death-gripping hands and, of course, tears ensued.

Apparently, this child really wanted a baby doll.

That evening, I started looking around online, but found a less-than-impressive selection of dolls. The vast majority were pink. Nearly all were girls. Most did something (as in peeing, pooping, crying, or drinking a bottle). Many were Caucasian - and those that had darker skin still seemed, oddly enough, to have Caucasian facial features. All were designed and marketed with "little mommies" in mind.

Being an Anthropologist by training, of course I had to conclude that these choices must somehow be representative of American cultural standards for things like gender-appropriate behavior, female beauty ideals, and parenting style.

I know, I know. I am probably reading WAY too much into it. Just hear me out, anyway, okay?
  • The availability of primarily white (Caucasian) dolls gives the message - intentional or not - that Caucasian skin and facial features are "normal." Don't think this affects children? Check out Kiri Davis' documentary A Girl Like Me (Skip ahead to 3:22 for a recreation of Dr. Kenneth Clark's infamous"doll experiment").
  • The lack of dolls in any colors other than pink implies that dolls - and the play themes that accompany them (caretaking, nurturing, etc.) - are for girls only.
  • The fact that dolls do things like drink bottles - but that a breastfeeding doll is taboo or controversial - suggests that certain parenting styles and behaviors are valued over others. Some are deemed appropriate for children to mimic, while others are not.

Boys' Toys
I'd like to consider my second bullet point, in particular. As I continued my search for a doll that I thought my little boy might like, I wondered, "Why are dolls seen as a girl's toy? Why can't little boys play with dolls, too?"

I personally don't see any reason why a little boy can't play with a baby doll (except that there are really no baby dolls made especially for little boys). But in case you happen to find yourself in a similar dilemma and are still unsure if you should let your little boy play with a doll, or your little girl play with race cars and such, here are a few things to consider:
  • The Power of Play...Research in the field of animal and human biology tells us that play is "practice" for real life roles. Some child care professionals and parents take this concept and run with it. Montessori-style education, for example, recognizes the importance of play as a catalyst for childhood development, and encourages children to practice life skills in their playtime - skills such as buttoning a shirt or preparing a meal. These activities are not restricted by gender or age; the child takes on activities according to his/her own ability and preference. While the Montessori approach is certainly not for everyone, one thing we as parents really do need to question is what we are teaching our children through the kind of play we foster for them. Are we teaching them that they can be or do anything they want - but only within culturally defined limits of what's "appropriate" for a boy or girl? Or are we teaching them to value skills and abilities that are both characteristically male (i.e. problem-solving, pragmatism, physical strength) and female (i.e. nurturing, communicative)?
  • Developmental Differences...I find it hard to believe that a boy who plays with "girl" toys will be developmentally affected in any significant way. Although boys do tend to avoid characteristically "girly" toys as they get older, this is likely due to a culturally instilled fear of social repercussions. Indeed, boys can often be judged more harshly for crossing these gender boundaries. Take one look at the Internet search results for "boys playing with dolls," and it's no wonder children pick up on the "gendered" nature of toys at an early age - our culture is saturated with worries about boys who play with "girl" toys. Even the Director of Child Research at Fisher-Price says that boys should stick with "boy" toys and girls with "girl" toys, a recommendation she claims is supported by research that shows fundamental differences in the brain development and structure of males and females. Interestingly, she cites no sources and, upon further investigation, you can see that this claim has been heavily disputed among research psychologists and other professionals.
  • Gender and Culture...Society and culture play a very big role in what's considered to be "gender-appropriate" play. Remember Anthropologist Margaret Mead's Sex and Temperament In Three Primitive Societies? Her theory, based on the research she did in Papua New Guinea, was that male and female gender, and the behaviors characteristically associated with each, are largely - if not fully - culturally constructed in nature. Children are socialized from a very early age through parental interactions, media and other sources to relate certain behaviors and traits with being a man or a woman. One study I found suggested that children as early as age two can associate toys with being stereotypically male or female. These associations are a crucial factor in how we interact with a child, even from the time he or she is conceived, and violations or willful ignorance of gender "rules" are met with extreme criticism, controversy and even hostility

Playing With Fire?
My hubby with his baby "Bianca," circa 1984
In the end, I decided to go for it and buy the baby doll. Needless to say, Little Man LOVES it. And I love that he loves it. The doll is a little white girl with blonde hair, a yellow onesie, and skin that smells just like my old Cabbage Patch doll (they must have a standard scent they use). Little Man rocks her, sings to her, gives her kisses - and also sometimes throws her across the room (we're working on that).

Is it negatively influencing him, or even scarring him for life to play with this doll? I highly doubt it. In fact, I think the opposite is true - he is learning skills and behaviors that are typically denied boys in our culture. It might even help him to become a more well-rounded person. After all, my husband had a much-beloved baby doll as a kid and he turned out wonderfully! (see picture above)

What do you think? Is it playing with fire to let a boy play with "girl" toys, or a girl play with "boy" toys?


    1. Great post. Recently I was putting away my old baby dolls when I found my favorite doll. I had never known why was she my favorite, she was porcelain, had light brown wisps painted on for hair, came with no accessories, and wore simple white gown. But then I noticed, she was the only realistic doll I owned that had brown eyes.

      While I could go off on growing up begging every christmas and birthday for a doll that looked more like me, I will stick to boys and dolls.

      There is a great post from a Dad and his coming to terms with his son's doll, another really good read.

      Because of the article above article my hubs-to-be made sure that one of our first gifts to his new nephew was a doll. He said "I want him to grow up to be a compassionate and thoughtful person. A simple way to do that, is to teach him to be kind to his baby."

      So we picked up a really cute little cloth doll at a education store in Leewood, KS. We liked it because it was gender neutral, the face was expressionless, but not creepy and it was 100% cotton. While I was looking for another one of these dolls for my niece or nephew (we find out next week!) I learned their name, Waldorf dolls, found a ton of them on Estsy!

      Another tid bit...
      I used to breast feed my dolls. All of the babies that in my very large family were breast fed, so that is what I saw. I would sit next to my mom and my tias and pretend to breast feed while they did. My cousins and I would play and when the baby doll would "cry" we would mimic all of the things that we saw, diaper, rocking, singing, bottle feeding and breast feeding. I even remember one of my older cousins correcting me while play-breastfeeding to "make sure to hold the baby's head like this..."

    2. Wow, Danyel! Thank you for sharing! I absolutely love the story about you breastfeeding your dolls. That is something I just never remember doing, probably because it's not something I saw often growing up.

      About the Waldorf dolls...I could be wrong, but I believe those are actually in the Montessori vein.

    3. Hi there, followed you back from BlogHer. You make a lot of really interesting points, some of which occurred to me as I was buying the doll for my daughter in the first place -- they're all pink, they all come with bottles, they all "do" things. That trifecta is hard to avoid, which is why I ended up with a doll that came with a bottle and talked.

      It is strange that girls doing "boy" things or playing with "boy" toys is considered OK, but boys playing with "girl" toys or exhibiting "girl" behavior is not.

    4. Hi Aym, and thank you for reading and commenting! I agree, it is a strange double-standard and I can't really wrap my head around why some people see it as so wrong for boys to play with "girl" toys. The only reason I can imagine is maybe it somehow threatens their male-ness? As I noted in this piece, though, I think more males in our culture could benefit from having exposure to traditionally female activities - all it can do is make them more well-rounded as people.