It happens all the time in parenting: You discover something as old as the Bible, but, because the idea seems to have come from your own mind, it feels brand-new. Like “I should buy my daughter a doll!” which is a realization that hit me just before she turned 1.
The doll I settled on is beside the point. (Okay, it was a Corolle Mon Premier.) By the time it arrived, it was so close to my daughter’s first birthday that we decided to give it to her then. So I spent a few days with the doll living in my office closet, gazing at me in from its weird post, still in the box. And of course, in that time, I wondered: Am I only buying this doll — in its ruffly pink dress — because I have a daughter? Am I encouraging her to play “house” in a way I might not have if I’d had a boy? Would I buy a boy a doll? Am I a terrible mother?
But as time passed, it became clear to me that my anxieties about boxing her into a life of homemaking were totally unfounded. In fact, the baby doll has taught my daughter a lot, and more important, maybe, it’s taught me a lot about her. Who knew that the introduction of a third party in our relationship could show us both so much?
More than telling my daughter about how she should behave, the doll, which she named BeeBee, often gave me opportunities to show her. I could say, “Be gentle, like this,” when she threw the baby on the ground, or say, “Here’s how the buttons on her shirt work.” In hopeful tones, I could whisper, “I think baby is ready for bed.”
This sounds so basic, but the baby doll has all of the exact same needs as my daughter. After a year of living with BeeBee, I can tell you that she — living through my daughter — needs to be groomed, cared for, dressed, and undressed, just like a real baby person does. Not only does my daughter feel that she must provide all this, but she communicates about it to me, too. That’s another thing about baby dolls: They get your kid to use “feeling” words. BeeBee gets boo-boos and is sleepy, hungry, happy, and mad more often than my own daughter.
Michele Borba is a child psychologist and author of the upcoming book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. She backed up some of my unscientific feelings about the doll. They’re widely known to be useful among child psychologists, she says, as a “tool for teaching emotional intelligence” in children. They can facilitate a laundry list of skills, including “attachment, love, respect, mimicking, how to take care of another human being, sharing, and communication,” because toddlers learn best by doing. Why would you deprive a girl of that? Why would you deprive a boy?
This might sound obvious, but it can be hard for adults, even consciously enlightened ones, to raise our own little people without bringing some semi-ridiculous assumptions about gender to the table. It can also be hard to admit you’re conflicted, but it’s okay! You can be unsure; you can take the time to think through how you explain things to kids. It’s all right to be worried that buying your daughter too much cooking and cleaning equipment will push her in the “wrong” direction, even if you personally love to cook and clean and can’t even quite define “wrong.”
Also, many of us aren’t parenting alone: Some of us have fathers to contend with, and they’re dealing with a whole different set of gender expectations than are mothers, making things even more complicated.
Head over to Target’s baby-doll aisle and see for yourself: The code is right there in front of you. The babies and their gear — the little beds, feeding sets, high chairs, strollers, and car seats — nearly all of it is pink. This color, of course, signals not the gender of the doll but presumably the gender of the little person who will play with the doll.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with boys having pink toys. But the code builds a tiny bit of friction into buying a doll for a boy. It’s a reminder that you’re going against protocol, a reminder that you have to consciously push back against. If I had a son, I would take issue with the code, because I would want that son to have the chance to play with and care for a doll just as my daughter has.
(You could substitute a stuffed dragon or a superhero action figure for a doll, says Dr. Borba, but many times small children do attach best to a toy that’s shaped like a baby. Toddlers can be more than a little baby-obsessed, so another upside of the doll: I can use it instead of producing a sibling.)
When we talk about moving toward gender-neutral toys and dismantling the patriarchy, we often point out that girls are pushed toward the kitchen supplies and the dolls, while boys get the building supplies. We say this as if the building supplies are innately superior, and the dolls innately inferior.
But of course true gender equality for children would mean that we also ensure that our little boys have access to dolls to care for, too. Even if all their gear is pink.