If we’re going to save fatherhood (and fathers), we need to start giving boys baby dolls.

I had heard it dozens of times and said nothing: “You’ll have to ask my wife, that’s really not my area.”

“Yeah I really don’t know what my kid had for breakfast or when they pooped last, that’s my wife’s job.”

“I don’t know how to do that, but my wife does. Must be those maternal instincts, right?”

This time there was a dad in front of me whose kid walked gleefully into my preschool classroom without saying goodbye to him. She would interact with us, the teachers, in meaningful ways. She would ask questions, volunteer information that started conversations. We were invited into her world.

Her dad was just the stranger on the other side of the classroom window, always made to look on while his daughter played and learned, but never allowed inside.

“I’m not sure why it’s like this, I feel so bad,” he said this morning as his daughter sat down to morning snack beside her favorite teacher. I made notes of who was eating what as Dad-In-Distress was on his way out the door, and paused to stare at his two-year-old daughter, babbling to the teacher, after he had struggled to have a conversation with her in the car.

“She’s not like this with my wife. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing it wrong, so I leave most of it to her mom, but then I feel like I’m missing so much. I guess women are just more naturally suited to it, they’re naturally more nurturing.”

I had had ignorant dads come through my classroom who knew nothing abut their kids and did not care to learn. I had met dads who thought their job was done, they brought home the bacon and their wife, (who also worked fifty hours a week in a software engineering position in the bustling, expensive Silicon Valley) did the care-taking and actual parenting. Their marriages suffered for it. All of their kids suffered for it. Now, here was a dad who longed to have a more meaningful connection with his child, and was isolated from her, and thought that he had some natural ineptitude where his wife excelled at bonding with their daughter. Here was a dad striving to be an involved, hands-on parent and coming up painfully empty. I had to say something.

“When did you get your first baby doll?”

Dad-In-Distress scoffed, not in ridicule but in incredulity. Why would I ask such a question? I asked it not so I could hear his answer, I already knew what it was: no one had ever in his life given him a baby doll. I had him return the question, because I wanted him to hear my answer.

“When did you get your first baby doll?” He asked.

“One. I was one, only a year old, when I got my first baby doll.”

Behind his eyes, a fuse was lit. Pretty soon, Looney-Toons-style Acme fireworks were going off. I had set off the dynamite and blown up this idea that he was incapable of building a relationship with his daughter because of some natural deficit in nurturing capabilities. While I had been trained and instructed in nurturing since toddlerhood, he was destined to become a father and yet had never been given a basic primer on the most important job he would ever have in his life.

I was a year old, barely out of infancy myself, when I received my first baby doll. Ask any man this question, his answer will most likely be the same as that of Dad-In-Distress. Ask any woman, and her answer will undoubtedly be the same as mine. If or when you received a baby doll is a small detail for most people, but as a child development professional, I knew that receiving a baby doll is an enormous milestone in a child’s social and emotional development.

Baby dolls are never “just baby dolls.” When playing with a baby doll, children are role-playing parenting. They practice the skills needed to care for an infant through pretending to feed, clothe, and diaper their “baby.” They build an imaginary but essential connection, and practice bonding by hugging, kissing, and singing to their baby. They learn what it looks like to be gentle, to display affection.

Most importantly, children use a baby doll to develop empathy. Empathy is a learned skill. When it is cold outside, a child will dress a baby doll more warmly. A child will pretend to hear a baby cry, just so they can go and soothe it. They learn to imbue the doll with the same emotions and feelings they experience, and later extend this learning to peers and smaller children: “others feel the things I feel.” A baby doll is a child’s step-ladder to learning to build relationships and bonds, and a baby doll in the hands of a boy normalizes the idea that men are parents, that tenderness is a male trait.

In the classroom, children who play with dolls will naturally separate themselves into families, and model the division of parenting labor and household labor. They enter the pretend kitchen, cook a meal together, and eat together as a “family.” They tuck their babies in and read them stories, together. They model a complete and inclusive picture of parenthood, one in which fathers are, well, fathers.

Toys are never just toys. Toys are learning pathways. Toys are models of adult life, miniaturized and made accessible to small hands and small minds. Toys are messages to children about the expectations and limitations that will be placed on them by our society. The “pink aisle problem,” separating “boy toys” (construction toys, cars and trucks, toys geared for hard sciences and left-brain-learning) from “girl toys:” dolls (plushes, kitchen sets, even mops and brooms) sends a message that labor and work are separated along lines of gender. “There are boy toys and there are girl toys” becomes “there is men’s work, and there is women’s work.”

(Comic Art by Maximumble.com)

As a person who has worked with literally hundreds of children from infancy through adolescence for over thirteen years, I have seen first hand what happens when we teach boys to build aggression instead of empathy. I have seen fathers (and mothers, and grandparents) pull baby dolls, stuffed animals, even books away from their sons, and replace them with monster trucks, rocket ships, and toy tools. People want their sons to build the world, to explore, to destroy and build again, but they are so afraid of their sons becoming “feminized” that they forget that empathy is a cornerstone in the building of an emotionally intelligent human being. They forget that their sons will eventually need to build something more important than brick and mortar, more important than the next machine: their sons will need to build relationships.

Men are incapacitated as parents because of the toxic idea that men are incapable of nurturing, and that they must be expected to maintain an unhealthy machismo as tenderness is seen as a liability.

If we are going to save fathers from feeling the tenuous bond between themselves and their children snap, if we are going to save children from a lifetime of emotionally distant fathers, we need to build men who view the essentials of fatherhood as inherently male-owned traits. If we are going to create households with healthy work/home balance in which men are just as entitled to a bond with their child as their wives are, we need to brand nurturing and empathy as characteristics of positive masculinity.

If we are going to save fathers and fatherhood in America, if we are going to give children back their dads, we need to start giving boys baby dolls.

Film critic, blogger, feminist. Hufflepuff. Professional cat-snuggler with a severe addiction to chocolate and a disturbing fascination with true crime.

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