What if a boy wants to play with a doll?

Recently I attended a training that touched upon gender roles and expectations in early childhood education. Even though this discussion was brief, it provoked a lot of personal reflection for me. This reflection was centered on my career as an educator, my role as a mother, and even my own childhood. While working in the classroom, I recall having a few parents who had certain expectations about how their boys should play. The dramatic play area was often a hot spot for them. I was sometimes told by parents of boys that there was to be no play with dress up clothes or baby dolls. As the teacher I timidly reiterated the importance of children being able to explore all the materials in the classroom and the philosophy of our program which allowed children to freely make choices throughout the environment.

Playing in the pretend or drama area is beneficial for all the children in the classroom!

Playing in the dramatic play area is beneficial for all the children in the classroom!

Looking back I feel I should have responded differently. I should not have been scared to participate in this challenging conversation. I should have asked, “Why?” I should have gone into detail on how children learn through imitation. I should have communicated that as children play through imitation they are researching different roles in life. I should have discussed all the things their son might be learning as they take care of that baby doll. I should have explained that as this little boy is pretending to give a baby doll its bottle, he is researching the role of fatherhood.

Even in my son’s younger years, when he was researching my role as his mother, I should have done a better job explaining this to his father. I should have been proud that my son found my role in life important, worth acting out and investigating through. Instead I would think to myself, your father would kill me if you saw you carrying a teddy bear around, wearing my heels! On the other hand when my son would imitate his father’s musical talents, no one pulled the guitar out of his hands. Everybody thought it was adorable that he wanted to be like his dad, so why shouldn’t he want to be like me? Is there something wrong with me or my son wanting to be like me? I believe my son saw me as someone who took care of other people while attempting to have some sense of fashion. He saw me as being nurturing. So what’s wrong with a boy or man who is nurturing towards others?

As I reflected on my own childhood, I realized these gender expectations weren’t quite as steep for me as a young girl. As a child, I remember my older brother desperately wanting a little brother to play sports with but he was stuck with me, a girl. So until my younger brother was born, I was the one he taught how to play sports. I was a little girl who could throw a spiral football and guess what, no one gasped or took the football and handed me a Barbie doll instead. I was taught how to play pickle, batter on a base, and run football routes; and everybody was okay with that. Not only did they let it happen, they cheered for me. Even after the arrival of my younger brother I was still included, gender didn’t matter. It was okay for me, as a girl, to catch frogs, turtles, and hold snakes. I did “boy” things as a little girl and nobody had a problem with it. So why is it a problem when a little boy does “girl” things?

Let’s stop being scared to have these difficult conversations. We can respectively communicate with parents on the value of children exploring and imitating different roles in society. Children need this type of play as “research,” it’s how they learn. As a mother, I find it comforting knowing my son understands how to be nurturing. This is a character trait that will bring him and other people in his life great joy. While reflecting back on my childhood, I now recognize that acting outside of gender role expectations as a child was helping me prepare for the most important role in my life, being a single mother. My son and I spend a lot of time together outdoors exploring nature and playing sports. Because of my experiences I can teach him about any of the things he might be interested in.