The New York Times recently published an article titled “Dolls That Nurture Boys’ Empathy.” The article described a new line of dolls that combine the features of an action figure and a stuffed animal: The head, arms, and legs are rigid vinyl, but the body is soft and “huggable.” This novel characteristic, along with matching masks for toy and boy, will, according to Laurel Wider—the entrepreneur behind the new toys—nurture boys’ empathy. One might reasonably expect that the author of the NY Times piece would provide some shred of evidence that such dolls do, in fact, nurture boys’ empathy: that boys who play with such toys actually become more empathetic. But no such evidence is provided—because no such evidence exists.
It’s not for lack of trying. The notion that giving dolls to boys will nurture their empathy is at least as old as “William’s Doll,” the song made famous by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas on their 1972 album Free to Be You and Me. In the song, we are told about five-year-old William, who is an accomplished baseball player (at five years of age!), but who nevertheless tells his father that: “I’d give my bat and ball and glove / to have a doll that I could love . . . / A doll to give a bottle to / and put to bed when day is through.” For nearly 50 years, the mainstream secular Zeitgeist has taught that the tendency of many boys to eschew dolls is a regrettable atavism that enlightened parents must combat tirelessly.
The underlying assumption is that most boys choose to play with lightsabers and trucks rather than with dolls merely because parents, or other social and cultural factors, push them to do so. The Guardians assure us that if our consciousness were sufficiently raised, and the culture sufficiently enlightened, we could do away with these cultural relics and have sons who truly want “A doll to give a bottle to / and put to bed when day is through.”
When I was earning my Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania back in the 1980s, I was taught that a two-year-old boy prefers to play with toy trucks rather than dolls because the boy’s behavior is governed by the following syllogism, which is called a gender schema:
1) I am a boy.
2) Boys are supposed to play with trucks and not with dolls.
3) Therefore, I will play with trucks and not with dolls.
There are several major problems with this theory—the biggest problem being that it is contradicted by the facts. When child psychologist Lisa Serbin and colleagues studied toddler girls and boys, they found that little children—boys especially—had barely a clue which gender they belonged to, even when the psychologists used the simplest nonverbal prompts. Kids under two years of age score only slightly above chance in assigning themselves or other kids to the correct gender.
Nevertheless, Serbin’s group found that children’s toy preferences are firmly in place by this age, especially among boys. When the experimenters offered boys a truck or a doll, most boys chose the truck. In fact, boys preferred trucks over dolls more strongly than girls preferred dolls over trucks. That ought to be surprising if you buy into gender schema theory because 18-month-old girls were more likely than boys to be able to classify themselves and other children by gender. If gender schema theory is correct, the girls should show a stronger preference for gender-typical toys because girls this age are more likely to know that they are, in fact, girls. But the reality is just the opposite.
If you have a son who is all-boy, your job is not to raise him to be a girl or a neuter, but a gentleman and a scholar: a man who is strong in mind, body, and spirit, and who will use that strength in the service of others.
Another group, led by child psychologist Anne Campbell, looked at toddlers at nine months of age—and they found similar results. Nine-month-old boys strongly preferred “boy toys,” such as balls, trains, and cars. Nine-month-old girls preferred “girl toys,” such as dolls and baby carriages, although the girls’ preference was (again) not as strong as the boys’ preference. Campbell’s study is especially striking because she showed clearly that nine-month-old infants have no clue what gender they belong to. Boys and girls show gender-typical toy preferences long before they understand gender. Dr. Campbell concluded, politely, that “the impact of cognitive variables may have been overestimated.” In other words, most 18-month-old boys don’t choose to play with trucks rather than dolls because they know they’re “supposed” to. They choose trucks because they’d rather play with trucks.
But, you may protest, “I know a boy who prefers to play with a doll rather than a truck.” Indeed. I also know several such boys. I devote an entire chapter of my book Why Gender Matters (revised edition, 2017) to such boys. We now have compelling evidence that these boys differ from gender-typical boys not in having more enlightened parents who gave them dolls to play with early on, but rather in having many more CAG codon repeats in their androgen receptor gene compared with gender-typical boys, making the androgen receptor gene less effective–essentially, feminizing those boys. Incidentally, those boys need not be gay. Matthew greatly prefers dolls to trucks, and Matthew grows up to be straight. Jason greatly prefers playing with trucks to playing with dolls, and Jason grows up to be gay.
Gender is complicated. But just because gender is complicated doesn’t mean gender doesn’t matter. It does matter. And much of what the Zeitgeist teaches as being learned is, in fact, hardwired—including the variations, such as the boy who prefers to play with dolls rather than trucks.
“But what’s the harm?” I hear some of you asking. “What possible harm is done when a parent takes away the pretend weapon from the boy, and instead gives the boy a cuddly doll?”
As a family doctor with more than a quarter-century clinical experience, I see the potential for significant harm. A parent should communicate love for a child: not love for some idealized child, but love for the actual son or daughter which you have in your home.
A boy I know wanted to play lightsabers with his mom. She refused. She told me later, “I didn’t want to condone violence.” She told her son to put away the lightsaber (a gift from the boy's uncle). Instead, she offered him a doll and said that she would show him how to play with it. She told me that her five-year-old son burst into tears, ran upstairs to his bedroom, and slammed the door shut.
If you say to your son, “I love you, but I don’t want you to play with lightsabers. I would prefer for you to play with this doll,” what your son hears is: “I may say that I love you, but, in reality, what I love is not you but some idealized boy who would happily play with dolls rather than with lightsabers—in other words, a boy completely unlike you.” And the resulting boy may grow up to be a teenager whose favorite activity is in the bedroom, indulging testosterone-fueled fantasies of mass murder in video games, such as Fortnite and Call of Duty.
In the first edition of my book Why Gender Matters, published back in 2005, I quoted the Roman poet Horace: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret: “You can drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she will return.” The leading voices at the New York Times and in academia may agree that parents should take toy weapons away from boys and insist on boys playing with dolls instead, but those voices are mistaken. If you have a son who is all-boy, your job is not to raise him to be a girl or a neuter, but a gentleman and a scholar: a man who is strong in mind, body, and spirit, and who will use that strength in the service of others. That has never been an easy job. It is harder today when many in the academy stand ready to denounce those parents who even try.
But you have to try. And it can be done.
Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D. is the author of four books for parents, including Boys Adrift and Why Gender Matters. More information is online at www.leonardsax.com.