Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem equalities minister, thinks parents should encourage their sons to play with dolls. Glen Poole shares his on thoughts and experiences on the matter as a father.
I have no experience of raising boys. I only have experience of raising one girl and my intention—as far as gender is concerned—has been to try and ensure that being female in a gendered world isn’t a barrier to her fulfilling her potential.
For me that was never about going against the grain of her unique nature. It was never about preventing her from doing “feminine” things and forcing her to do “masculine” things. It has been more about trying to cultivate and model an attitude of “anything is possible”.
Of course I haven’t always succeeded, but the intention is always there.
Match of the Day
Shortly after my daughter started to walk I proudly taught her to dribble a soft football while humming the Match of the Day theme tune. I allowed her to explore nature, get muddy and play with snails (though not slugs and puppy dogs tails, I’m not that clichéd). I bought her “boys’ toys” like trucks and cars as well as “girls’ toys” like dolls and prams.
A defining moment for me came when she was about two. Through her own preference, the trucks had disappeared into the back of a cupboard through lack of play and I’d all but forgotten them—until a friend with a son came round and discovered them in seconds and started charging around the house with them making engine noises.
The next toy he picked up was a pretend broom—“ah they’re going to play house together I thought”—but no, he used the broom as weapon and he started hitting things with it. I’d never seen my daughter play in this boisterous way, she was more……”girl-sterous”.
My own experience is that my daughter went through many phases and I tried to embrace them all. When she got her first bike she was in a princess phase and wanted the pinkest bike in the world and I had great fun obliging. By the time she was seven and needed a bigger bike she was going through a “tom boy” phase and actively wearing “boys’ clothes” and wanted a “boy bike” which was blue and had a Dennis the Menace bell on it. Again i enjoyed playing along.
Which box do we belong in?
She was navigating a culture that puts boys and girls into boxes, trying out those different boxes for and discovering how it felt to to be her natural self, not the self others though she should and shouldn’t be.
It’s an ongoing process and as a teenager she’s happily studying science and maths through her own choice; dresses in jeans, Converse and t-shirts most days; has a shelf full of “woman’s things” that are alien to me and can glam up like a movie star when she chooses to.
I hope, as a parent, that I have, in some small way, made it easier for her to make the choices that are right for her in life—-but who knows?
Is the male brain different?
And what I certainly don’t know is how this approach would have worked for a son. Would he have wanted pink bike? Would the doll I bought him ended up gathering dust at the back of the cupboard? Would he have worn skirts to college and tuxedos at the weekend. I’ll never know.
However, as I started writing this article, I was reminded of the book “The Male Brain” by Louann Brizendine and in particular a section about boys and toys, in which she says:
“Researchers have found that boy and girls both prefer the toys of their own sex, but girls will pay with boys’ toys, while boys—by the age of four—reject girl toys and even toys that are “girl colours” like pink.”
Brizendine says she didn’t know this when here son was born and so she set out, with good intention, to give him lots of unisex toys to avoid gender stereotyping.
The shocked feminist
“I bought him a Barbie doll,” she says. “I though it would be good for him to have some practice playing out nonaggressive, co-operative scenarios. Once he freed her from the packaging, he grabbed her around the torso and thrust her long legs into midair like a sword, shouting, “Eeeehhhg, take that!” toward some imaginary enemy.
“I was taken aback, as I was part of the generation of second-wave feminists who had decided that we were going to raise emotionally sensitive boys who weren’t aggressive or obsessed with weapons and competition. Giving our children toys for both genders was part of our new child-rearing plan. We pride ourselves on how or future daughters-in-law would thank us for the emotionally sensitive men we raised. Until we had our own sons, this sounded perfectly plausible.”
Brizendine goes on to make the case that it is natural for boys to be more interested in competitive games and girls to be more interested in co-operative games; with boys spending nearly twice as much as their free time playing competitive games and girls ”taking turns” in their co-operative play twentiy times more than boys.
Another study she cites found that boys were six times more likely than girls to use domestic objects (like my daughter’s play broom) into weapons. Even Rhesus monkeys, says Brizendine, show sex differences in toy preferences with male monkeys more likely to choose trucks than dolls to play with when compared to female monkeys.
Will boys be boys?
Brizendine believes that nature is at play here. She cites the condition in girls called CAH (congenital adrenal hyperplasia) which is cause by exposure to high levels of the masculine hormone testosterone in the womb. Researchers have found that girls with CAH are more likely to choose “boys toys” to play with than other girls.
I strongly believe that boys and girls should be free to explore all sides of their personality, but there is a word of caution here. I am wary of people who think there is something fundamentally wrong with boys, such that their behaviours and beliefs need to be conditioned out of them.
Jo Swinson MP wants to encourage boys to play with “feminine” toys like dolls, others, like Yvette Cooper MP, want boys to be taught to be feminists others, like the Great Men Value Women project that runs workshops for teenage boys in schools want a a “de-gendered” future where men and boys have “dropped the concept of masculinity altogether“.
My personal belief is that men and boys, like women and girls, should be free to choose—and yes our choices can be restricted in various ways by the culture and society we grow up in. At a cultural level, I think dads should encourage and challenge boys to be who they want to be, to think what they want to think and to play with whatever toys they want to play with—whether that’s cuddling dolls or turning Barbies into weapons, either way, let them have their fun and discover for themselves what it means to be a man.
—Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
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