When people think of buying toys for boys, some buy quintessential boys’ toys such as sports equipment, Nerf guns and superhero figures. Others prefer to buy gender-neutral gifts such as books, stationery and craft materials. Well, just the other day, I did something rather unusual and bought both my sons a doll each.
So I had promised my 5-year-old son a toy and we were walking through the aisles of Toys R Us trying to find something that fit both his criteria and mine. It was becoming a rather arduous task as he kept picking up swords, guns, Star Wars figurines and the like, and I kept rejecting all of them on the basis that they promoted violence and I had enough of my two sons fighting all day long.
Buying toys for boys isn’t rocket science and it wasn’t supposed to take so long. But I found myself slowly losing my patience.
After awhile, we somehow ended up in the girls’ section and my son stumbled upon some dolls. Not the Barbie kind, but more of baby dolls. My son seemed rather fascinated by what he saw and he started taking a closer look at the dolls.
An impish grin formed on my face and I immediately whipped out my hand phone and started taking a video of him choosing a doll for himself. At that point in time, I didn’t have any intention of actually buying a doll. In fact, I have to admit that I found it rather funny and I had intended to later tease him with the evidence of his interest in dolls.
He said that he wanted a baby to look after, akin to me looking after his 4-month-old baby sister. I thought about it for a bit and nodded my head, albeit reluctantly. I was still caught in what was considered normal when buying toys for boys, and didn’t welcome the idea of my son bringing a doll home. But I bought the dolls anyway, one for him, and one for his two-year-old brother.
While we were driving home, I was still thinking about how I would explain my purchase to my alpha male husband, when my son interrupted my thoughts.
“Mummy, why were all the dolls girl dolls? I chose a girl doll because she’s like my sister but why are there no boy dolls?”
I was trying to find the right thing to say but before I could, he went on to say,
“If there are real human baby boys, there should be doll boys too right? And why are the dolls only in the girls’ section? Why can’t boys play with dolls? In real life, daddies have babies too, right?”
I tried to obfuscate the matter by mumbling something about how nice it was of him to want to take care of a baby but I realised that I could not give him a proper answer.
How could I tell him that boys don’t play with dolls, when he had just made a clearly valid point? How could I explain to him the social constructs and gender biases that pervade society?
How could I tell him that to some extent, even I am a product of these social constructions?
If in real life men have babies, and it is their responsibility to care for their babies, then why do we frown upon boys playing with baby dolls? Why are the vast majority of dolls tailored to the fancy of girls?
When we got home, the grandparents weren’t too pleased to see what I had bought. True to the patriarchal nature of traditional Asian parents, my father asked my son,
“Why are you playing with dolls, are you a girl?”
A visibly irritated 5-year-old retorted,
“I’m very upset with you for saying that. Of course I’m a boy and I know I’m a boy so don’t call me a girl. Playing with a doll doesn’t make me a girl. Didn’t you take care of my mummy when she was a baby?”
That night, I watched my two sons playing with the dolls and I must mention that there was a certain peace and calmness in the air. The house was void of the usual chaos and cacophony of boys pretend-playing superheroes, soldiers and policemen.
Instead, I saw two little boys, speaking gently and cajoling their little ‘babies’. I saw two little boys trying to shoulder responsibilities such as feeding their babies, giving them a bath, reading stories to them, changing them into their jammies and ever so gently, tucking them into bed.
They even cautioned me not to make a sound, as their babies were about to fall asleep.
That night, in addition to responsibility, I saw love, kindness, compassion and empathy in my sons. I saw their nurturing side emerging. I saw them re-enacting how I handled their baby sister.
And isn’t that exactly what we want to see in men? Isn’t that exactly what we want our boys to be like when they grow up – kind, sensitive, caring and not hesitating to take on the responsibilities of running a home and family?
I’m not a feminist and I’m not particularly advocating gender equality. Neither am I saying we do a complete reversal of the norms and only buy our boys dolls and cooking toys and buy our girls guns and swords. I’m not doing the whole – I won’t wear pink clothes for my daughter thing. No.
I’m not saying that we raise our girls to refuse when a man tries to open the door or pull a chair out for her. No. I believe in chivalry. Completely. Because I am a little old school that way.
But along with chivalry, I’m also a firm believer in raising our sons to know that when it comes to running a family, nothing is a woman’s job. Our sons should take it upon themselves to do the cooking every now and then, to clean up after themselves and to have no qualms about changing their child’s diaper.
It’s fine for a man to want to feel a little pampered by his wife, or to just sit back and be the king of the house every now and then. That’s perfectly acceptable, but it should never become an entitlement. Neither should a woman feel obligated to shoulder all the domestic responsibilities. That’s when it starts getting problematic.
While society has come a long way from the concept of traditionally gender-defined roles, gender bias is still rampant. Many men still believe that they are too manly to do certain things.
In fact, gender-stratification exists even within households, and these inequalities make such families microcosms of society at large. Such concepts are problematic and we need to move away from these social constructions that feed on ignorance and generations of unfairness and oppression of women.
If we wish to change big perceptions, we must start with the smallest things. Reconsidering our myopic views of buying toys for boys could be one way to start.
While we can’t change the world, we can make the world a better place, a tiny step at a time, with each child that we raise well. And if enough mothers come together to ensure that they imbue the right values in their sons, there will come a day when we will never hear a man saying – that’s my wife’s job.
And that’s why I bought my son a doll, would you?