My one year old loves babies. He loves to say "baby", he loves to look at babies, even pictures of babies, and he loves to play with babies. Lately he has been "borrowing" dolls from a couple of his playmates. He was playing with one yesterday at a playgroup and was talking as he examined the hands of the doll. One of the other moms I was with realized what he was saying -- "fingers." When the doll's owner took it back, my son crawled over to a younger baby, patted him on the head, and said "good baby".
I decided to take him to the toy store after my yoga class this morning. I have to say it is very difficult to find an appropriate doll for a one year old boy. I had a whole list of mental criteria -- no small parts like removable shoes, no bottles, soft body, not too feminine, no batteries, identifiable body parts (fingers, toes) for teaching. I was looking for a boy doll, but the only one they had was way too big for a toddler to carry around. I wanted to find him something fairly small and cuddly, but it still had to look like a baby.
There were lots of dolls and lots of pink. Lots of names like "Little Mommy", and every doll was geared exclusively toward little girls. Boys had action figures, guns. All hard plastic and nothing soft. Rowan loves soft stuffed animals, but animals aren't very good for teaching a toddler about human toes and noses and shoulders. He ended up picking out his own doll, a little baby doll wrapped in a blue blanket. It has a soft body and molded limbs and head, and Rowan's eyes lit up excitedly when he saw it. It is a girl baby, and I didn't realize it was dressed mostly in pink until we got home. That's all right. He might have a little sister someday anyways. He is curled up on the floor sleeping with his new friend right now. A quilt of NFL team fabric is keeping them warm.
It perplexes me that so many parents wouldn't allow their little boys to play with "girl" toys like dolls, kitchens, and crafts. I want my son to know how to mend torn clothes. I want him to be able to prepare a tasty meal. I want him to be nurturing and know how to handle babies. He'll be a big brother eventually, after all. He is a very rough and tumble little guy, so learning how to be calm and gentle with a little baby is a necessity. I'm currently trying to teach him not to hit babies or poke their faces, and since we aren't around babies more than a couple times a week, a doll is becoming the stand-in for a real baby.
I think some of the things "girl" toys can teach are basic life skills -- cooking, mending, household chores, child care. Why are those things marketed as gender-specific. If we eventually have a girl, I won't think anything of her wearing her brother's blue hand-me-downs, playing with trucks, and participating in sports. We draw the line at guns for both genders, since I won't let my children play with inherently violent toys. I want him to play house because he will eventually be living in a house or apartment of his own. I want him to play with stuffed animals and dolls because he might decide to have a pet or have children. I'm going to teach him how to sew and cook because his grandmother never taught her boys such things and so they never learned. It gets a little frustrating for me that my husband cannot even prepare a simple meal or sew on a button, especially if I am sick in bed and those things need to be done.
Our society is still so hung-up on gender roles that often people can't see the incredible merit of treating all toys as gender-neutral. I am not turning my little guy into a sissy. I am giving him another opportunity to learn, an opportunity for imaginative play and mental growth. He is learning about communication and responsibility. He is learning not to hit people with plastic bats or drumsticks. There are appropriate toys to hit with those objects, but a baby doll isn't one of them. He is learning how to be a big brother before he becomes one, and hopefully that eventually translates into him being a respectful adult, one who doesn't expect his partner to do all the chores, one who cleans up after himself and is gentle with other human beings and animals.
It is a very long process to instill such traits in a child, but children learn best through play. If they are allowed to play with a variety of toys, it helps prepare them for the rest of their lives while still allowing them to be children. I don't want my son to act like an adult just because he has a doll, a set of megablocks, and a drum. I just want him to learn and grow and explore the world so that in seventeen years, he will be slowly transformed into a responsible young adult. I am letting him grow up to be whatever he wants to be, and I am giving him the tools to do so. A little guidance, a little luck, some toys and games, a lot of time, and a lot of love.