“He really shouldn’t be playing with those dolls.” It was mid-summer and my grandmother and I were in the backyard of my parents’ home watching my children play with their cousins. They were playing “house” and my son was packing a diaper bag for his baby doll full of clothes, bottles, and pretend diapers.
“Grandma,” I replied, “he watches me taking care of his baby sister all the time, he’s just emulating what he sees me doing every day.” My grandmother is 89 years old, and I often seek her advice when it comes to parenting, household, or marriage issues—after all, she and my grandfather were married for over 50 years and raised five children. Of course, we have our differences. She’s very religious while I’m more spiritual; she makes her tortillas from scratch while I buy them from the store; and, as I discovered, she doesn’t think boys should play with dolls and I do.
Hearing those words come from her mouth pierced my heart. I never really gave any significance to the types of toys my children prefer to play with. I grew up with a mother who didn’t want to dress me in pink or raise me like a princess. She despised Disney movies and the messaging that princesses needed a prince to be saved. She didn’t push traditional girl toys on me unless I asked for them. Therefore, I don’t push gender-specific toys onto my children. I just let them play with what they naturally gravitate towards, and my son gravitates towards Barbies, dolls, and anything JoJo Siwa related. He loves doing arts and crafts that involve glitter, sparkles, stickers, and anything colorful. To be honest, there is so much more to my son than his toy preferences that I never gave it a second thought. Until one afternoon he had a boy from his class come over to play.
Before the playdate, my son asked me if I could hide all of his “girl toys” in his closet so his classmate wouldn’t see them. Not wanting to make a big deal of it, I obliged and gently reminded him that there are no such things as girl toys or boy toys and that he should feel confident playing with whatever he wanted to. It made me sad to think that he was noticing differences between himself and his other male classmates. After the playdate—which went smoothly—I, too, began to notice little things that furthered the gender dichotomy.
On the rare occasion that we order Happy Meals from the McDonald’s drive-thru, I am asked: boy or girl? It helps them determine what toy they should include because heaven forbid a boy receive a toy meant for a girl (or vice versa.) When distant relatives send Christmas or birthday presents to the kids, it’s always a doll for my daughter and some type of gun-toting soldier for my son. When my daughter developed a love for Star Wars and a deep affinity to Darth Vader, it was seen as powerful and strong. When my son developed an interest in ballet and gymnastics, it was questioned.
For girls to emulate boys is acceptable, but for boys to emulate girls is not. As a society, we want our daughters to be strong, to speak their mind, to grow into capable women; however, we discourage our sons from being vulnerable, delicate, or gentle. We discourage them from showing emotion and condone or excuse behavior because “boys will be boys.” This is something that I grapple with as I raise my son and daughter, both of whom I want to grow into happy, successful, and confident adults.
Is my son’s toy preference a sign of sexual orientation? The short answer is: who knows and who cares! What I do care strongly about are opinions and judgments from people outside of our home that may influence his self-esteem. What I know for certain is that I’m grateful to be his mother and will do my best to help him along in his amazing life, no matter what obstacles and blessings come his way.
If someone in your life comments on your child’s toy preferences—especially if you too have a son who loves playing with dolls—here are five ways you can respond (in your own head, at the very least):
1. Please place your macho and toxic stereotypes elsewhere. Thank you, next.
2. Why does my child’s toy preference concern you so much? You may want to look into that.
3. How do we expect men to become engaged dads if they are teased for playing with dolls as boys?
4. Thank you for your comment. My son is going to make an incredible father someday/my daughter is going to be an incredible leader someday.
5. Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that we took the DeLoreon back to the ’50s!