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Guys and Dolls: The Stigma Against Boys

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This article is written by our friends at Let Toys Be Toys.


No one turns a hair when a man walks down the street with a baby in a stroller these days. So why does the sight of a boy with a doll seem to get some people so anxious? 

You can't give him that... 

A girl who chooses construction or science toys can probably expect a fair amount of encouragement, alongside people telling her that those activities are 'for boys.' We're mostly pretty comfortable with girls aspiring to things traditionally 'masculine.' 

It says a lot about how our society views women though, that people get a whole lot more worried about boys showing an interest in something 'girly.'

Getting in a bit of ‘big brother’ practice  

Research carried out by Kids Industries in the UK showed that nearly a quarter of parents were uncomfortable with the idea of their son playing with a doll. (Fewer than 5% of parents were bothered by the idea of their daughter playing with a toy train.)

But dolls can be great toys, allowing role play and small world play that can help develop motor skills, empathy, and communication skills.  

When dads push strollers through every mall and Main Street in the country without comment, what exactly is it about a boy with a stroller that gets people so upset?

Letting the bullies win 

In the research by Kids Industries, the most common reason parents gave for their anxiety about a boy with a doll was worry over other people's reactions. 

Although a personal anecdote, I once encountered a situation where a friend’s dad did not approve of his grandson playing with dollhouses.  He became worried sick that his grandson would be teased, despite the fact that as a child he’d actually wanted a dollhouse himself.   

It’s a severe case of the Emperor’s New Clothes and we need to stand up and say "What’s the big deal?!”   

Because a boy who plays with dolls is still a boy – just as a girl who climbs trees is still a girl. Not a tomboy, but just a girl who, well, likes to climbs trees!  They’re just kids, playing with the toys they want. Western civilization isn’t going to crumble if a boy pushes a toy stroller down the street.

Not supposed to cry 

Many parents simply can't believe that a boy might even want to play with a doll, or a toy kitchen. But kids learn quickly which games get an approving glance or a shocked glare from adults. 

Courtesy of Higher Un-Learning

They're also paying attention to the messages of marketing and advertising. This image shows what a group of nine-year olds boys picked out as the things they didn't like about being a boy. I find it a touching reading, particularly the point about 'not being a mother.' The boy wasn't talking about giving birth here. He explained that when you see commercials for baby dolls it's always girls playing with the dolls. And boys don't get to be mothers.  

How has he learned that he doesn't get to play at being a father?  

He's got a point though. Stroll down the 'Dolls' aisle in a toy store, and if it isn't explicitly labelled 'Girls,' it's certainly not set up to make him feel welcome. Nearly every package shows a smiling girl. And weirdly, nearly every baby doll is presented as female too. 

Who’s holding the baby? 

Left to their own devices, children will choose all sorts of toys, and many boys will enjoy changing dolly's nappy or crooning teddy to sleep, just like the Mums and Dads in their lives. (Check out our 'caring boys' gallery if you're skeptical. It's the cutest thing on the internet.)  

It's time for the toy industry to catch up. 

Real families are changing; research at the Fatherhood Institute shows that a substantial number of fathers are now full- or part-time ‘home dads’: among fathers of under-fives, 21% are solely responsible for childcare at some point during the working week and 43% of fathers of school-aged children provide care before/after school. 

Increasingly, fathers want the chance to hold the baby too. So why would anyone want to discourage little boys from playing Daddy? 

We need to challenge the mass advertising campaign that tells our boys that to be a man is to be aggressive, emotionally stunted, and crap at cleaning up the house. Because until we do, marketers will continue to exploit our fears and offer our sons ever-narrower definitions of what it means to be a boy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that for my son. 



Jess Day is a campaigner with Let Toys Be Toys, a UK campaign asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. Since their launch, 14 retailers and 9 publishers have agreed to drop 'Boys' and 'Girls' labeling.  Find out more:


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