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.
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.
- That nearly all of the dolls did something is, in my opinion, a reflection of our culture's devaluing of imagination and pure play - play that happens without batteries or lights or gimmicks.
Boys' ToysI'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|
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?