I went on eBay and bought him some second-hand dolls (Picture: Mmuffin for Metro.co.uk)My son was 17 months old when he learnt the word ‘car’. Later that week, as I pushed his buggy down our street, he insisted on pointing out every vehicle we passed.
Amused, I stopped and took a quick video of him and sent it to my family Whatsapp.
He already had a couple of toy cars but by Christmas he had more than doubled his fleet. ‘He really loves cars, doesn’t he?’ commented one friend. ‘Probably because you keep buying them for him,’ I said.
I was kidding at the time but I’ve started to consider it more seriously. ‘Car’ is not, after all, his only word.
He only has to spot a buggy on the other side of the street to start shouting ‘Baby! Baby!’ – yet no one’s thought to buy him a baby doll. By focusing on some interests and not others, aren’t we affirming ideas about what little boys ‘should’ be into?
So I took it upon myself to even up the balance a bit: I went on eBay and bought him some second-hand dolls.
Of course, no one in my family would ever claim that boys shouldn’t play with dolls. ‘I had a dolly when I was little,’ my husband says proudly when I tell him what I’ve done. But it’s interesting that ‘car’ is interpreted as a personality trait while ‘baby’ is merely a word he knows.
I believe this is down to internalised gender biases. Few of us would think of ourselves as sexist. Nevertheless, we are not immune to the subtle messages we receive from our environment.
It’s interesting that ‘car’ is interpreted as a personality trait while ‘baby’ is merely a word he knows.
Research by the Let Toys Be Toys campaign found that while most catalogues and online stores no longer explicitly label toys as being for girls or boys, they are still twice as likely to show girls playing with kitchens and other ‘domestic’ toys and four times as likely to show boys playing with cars.
When it comes to dolls, just 10 out of the 128 pictures they reviewed of children playing with dolls were boys.
It was no surprise to me that car, bus, and train were among his first words. But these things interest him not because of some innate male obsession with machines but because he sees them every single day.
He also sees us care for him, get him dressed, take him out for walks in the buggy, tell him stories and put him down for naps so nothing could be more natural than to imitate the activities we do with him everyday with his dolls.
Plus, different toys allow for different kinds of play. A toy garage allows him to open and close doors, to roll cars up and down a ramp. Playing with dolls helps develop social skills, to learn about body parts, and to process feelings and experiences.
To deny a child these opportunities is more than a shame, it is potentially dangerous. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 45 yet men are significantly less likely than women to seek access to psychological therapies.
I’m not suggesting that a couple of second-hand dolls can solve the crisis of male mental health but by fostering an environment where boys can explore their nurturing instincts, by normalising caregiving and encouraging them to articulate emotions, we are at least providing a foundation on which they can build.
As for my little boy, he’s delighted with the ‘babies’. On their first day in their new home, he put them all to bed in an empty box. Just this morning, he dragged me into the living room to point out their ears to me.
And maybe they won’t end up being his favourite toys, that’s fine. Maybe he’ll always prefer Duplo and cars and books – all things I too avidly played with as a child – but I at least want to give him the chance to find out.
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