Boys and Dolls: A New Era of Play

I could not be more excited to welcome my dear friend Kristen Johnson to the blog today to share about her new passion project that so closely aligns with my values when it comes to raising boys - it's dang near scary.  

My boys love dolls.  My almost-four-year-old carries a baby doll regularly with him to school.  He loves to dress dolls, talk to them, give them milk, and dance with them.  His dolls are in his toy set and just another part of his pretend play routine.  No big deal to him.

But dolls seem to be a big deal to adults.  Especially when boys play with dolls.  There’s a lot of Internet chatter about the topic of boys and dolls.  Generally, the public commentary of the moment seems to agree that boys should play with dolls. 

Why, then, is the world of dolls so askew? 

The makers and the buyers of dolls have until now allowed dolls—which are just little people—to be almost entirely one gender.  I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but that gender is female.  Dolls are girls.  Even most baby dolls are girls.  It is extremely rare to find a normal-looking boy doll in the 3-9 age range.

This phenomenon of doll gender imbalance has not gone unnoticed.  In a hugely popular viral Internet moment, we saw one mom make an “American boy” doll for her son.  That mom (Gina DeMillo Wagner) wrote about the experience: “A year ago, when my daughter turned 7, she received one of American Girl’s popular ‘Truly Me’ dolls, customized to look like her. My son, naturally, wanted a doll that looks like him, too. Trouble is, there are no 18-inch ‘American Boy’ dolls available.”  Wagner did something about it, but the only way she could figure how to do so was to buy a girl doll, remove her makeup and cut her hair to create a boy doll. 

How odd that she could not just go buy a boy doll.

The imbalance among dolls impacts all children.  We all know the problem:  Girls are told that they should be playing with dolls, creating a lifelong impression that somehow the action of nurturing, caretaking, and even play with like-aged children and babies belongs to females.  In turn, boys are sent the message that they should not be playing with dolls.  This creates a lifelong impression that their job is NOT to be nurturing, caretaking, and playing with like-aged children and babies.

Our kids deserve better than this.  My sons are onto something when they play with dolls.  They’re relating.  They’re oblivious to stereotypes.  And we should keep them that way.

Okay, so what’s the problem and solution? 

The problem is that modern-day toys still send antiquated messages.  

Our kids cannot walk into a toy store and choose from an array of dolls.  They can’t find a doll that looks like them, and sometimes they can’t even find a doll that is their gender or race.

The solution is for real, really real, to stock the doll sections of toy aisles with a healthy variety of dolls.  So simple.  Kids’ imaginations can do most of the work, but let’s give them access to a full painters’ palette rather than a single choice.

Choice is what matters.  No one wants to go to a restaurant only to be served one dish.  Add some variety, let kids choose how to play, and watch the happiness grow.  Let’s give the boy and girl dolls.

Beyond evening the playing field, encouraging all our young’uns to engage in free and imaginative play with dolls has massive benefits on their childhood development.  The skills developed are countless, but just to name a few, an occupational therapist, a speech-language pathologist, and a clinical psychologist (all also moms) identified these:

  • Cognitive, fine motor, and self-help skills
  • Speech and language skills
  • Social and emotional skills

Based upon my lowly observations as a mom myself, though, despite these great benefits of playing with dolls, boys are still discouraged from doing so.  Change in the doll world is moving at a snail’s pace.  So I have decided to do something about it.  If the solution is to get more variety into the stores, then let’s do it!

Next month I am launching a new company, Boy Story, designed to bring diverse boy dolls to the toy aisles for all kids.  Boy Story’s main product is 18” ball-jointed Action Dolls.  They are boys (for now—girls will be added as the selection becomes more balanced).  Each boy doll comes with a story to get the imagination fired up.  My dream is to walk into a toy store and see a selection of dolls more representative of the world we live in.  Diverse, evenly marketed to both boys and girls, and fun.

FUN - most of all.  Once we’ve gotten rid of the stereotypes that have plagued our toys for generations, that’s what will emerge.  Fun.

For me, and pretty much for every parent I know, that’s really the goal here.  Provide toys that are a joy to play with.  We want the moments of our kids’ lives to be fun, carefree, and filled with play.  Our childhood time is precious.  Why waste it having to struggle through an explanation over pink and blue aisles?  Or spend time explaining to my son why all the dolls available only wear dresses?  Let’s give our kids the diverse tools they need to grow into loving and open-minded adults.

On April 13th, you can help my mission to level the playing field.  Boy Story is launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money for production of our first run of Action Dolls.  We hope you’ll join in, back our project, and contribute to this positive change! 

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Kristen Johnson is an international lawyer living in Qatar, family devotee, and social changer.  She can't decide whether to lean in or lean back, but with two young sons, her hands always seem to be full.  Her village is her rock: her husband, family, friends, and colleagues.  She co-founded Boy Story with her sister, Katie Jarvis, a brilliant designer, goofball aunt, and the-girl-you-can't-stop-laughing-with.