As I tuck my son into bed each night, I read him a few stories, tell him about his day and give him a big kiss on his forehead. Just before I leave the room, I pull his blanket up over his shoulders and make sure one of his favorite baby dolls – Carmen, Joey, or Carlo – are tucked snugly under his arm.

At night my son finds a simple comfort in holding tightly to one of his dolls, but during the day their relationship is much more active. He walks them around the house and sings to them while he snacks at the table. He brings them along to the grocery store and to his babysitter’s house. He rocks them and feeds them and teaches them how to play with his other toys.

I’ve never heard a negative comment about my son’s love for his dolls but we do, very frequently, get compliments on how sweet it is to see our “daughter” caring so sweetly for them.

While there are still segments of the population who won’t allow their sons play with “girls toys,” as evidenced by the outrage surrounding Target’s 2015 move to make their toy sections “gender neutral,” by and large we’ve evolved to the point that most parents “let” their sons play with dolls.

When the discussion of boys and dolls arises at the park or in an online forum, I often hear progressive parents share that they have no problem with their son playing with his sister’s dolls or that they would absolutely buy their boy a doll if he ever asked for one. Rarely, though, do I hear parents share that they’ve bought their boy a doll unsolicited or that they filled his nursery with them before he arrived.

What parents fail to understand is that if all they’re doing is “letting” their boys play with dolls, they’re still sending the message that dolls aren’t really for them and thus denying their boys a plaything that’s both fun and developmentally valuable, as well as the opportunity to develop an interest in care and nurturing work.

Before my son was born, I dug into research on the best developmental toys for babies and toddlers. Though I have fond memories of my own Baby All Gone and Bitty Baby, I was surprised to learn of the multitude of ways that dolls and care play can positively impact children as they grow.

From cognitive and motor development to social-emotional growth, no other single toy comes close to the impact that dolls can have. As I watch my son feed and dress Carmen with a focused concentration, I appreciate the fine motor skill practice he’s getting. As he kisses Joey on the head after accidentally dropping him, I see him developing empathy and an ability to look outside of himself.

And, perhaps most exciting of all, as I watch him act out scenes from preschool or our own home life with Carlo, I get to watch him work through big feelings and explore and experiment with different choices, personalities, and responses.

Though kids are born with a temperament and with elements of their forthcoming personality, they are, in many ways, a blank slate when they arrive. They don’t know how to hold their own head up, or roll over, or put on their clothes. They have little appreciation for manners and almost no understanding of social norms.

By our teaching, they learn how to shake a rattle and hold a spoon, how to scribble with a crayon and to bang the keys of their little pianos. We also teach them how to play with their toys. If a child doesn’t know how to roll their cars out of their toy garage or connect the pieces of their train set or rock and feed their dolls, they won’t enjoy playing with them. Why then, do we place the undue burden of developing an interest in (and then learning to play with) dolls before we consider him interested enough to buy him one of his own?

hank with dollThe push for girls in science, technology, engineering, and math in the past few years has come with a wide offering of STEM-oriented toys designed specifically to help girls develop an interest in the subject matter. As a society we understand that girls are underrepresented in the sciences not because they’re not good at them or uninterested in them, but because they’re guided away from them, both implicitly and explicitly. And so, with the advent and marketing of STEM toys, we’re trying to do better.

With boys, we seem to still believe that they’re just not interested in dolls and care play and, when they grow into men that are underrepresented in teaching, nursing, and other care fields, we scratch our heads and wonder why.

Dolls aren’t the only toys that my son possesses. I’m not interested in forcing him into liking any one thing or pushing my own likes and dislikes onto him. He has cars and trucks and blocks and coloring books and sports equipment. I buy toys for my boy based not on the interests he has at the moment, but on the interests he may develop if a new toy sparks his imagination.

We, the collective “we” that includes parents, family, teachers, and society at large, teach our kids how to live and love and have fun in this world. Let’s stop denying boys access to dolls simply because they don’t ask for them. We should work to introduce a range of toys to all kids, to stop categorizing toys as boys or girls or gender neutral and to provide the material goods that will help kids develop the interests that might later drive their passions.

My son got his first baby doll before he showed the faintest interest in dolls; he wasn’t yet a year old and his primary interests were limited to nursing, watching someone make silly faces at him, and looking upwards as birds or planes crossed the sky. And now, my little boy, sweet and energetic and loving, can often be found wearing baby Joey in his baby doll Ergo as he races his cars through the house. And I couldn’t be happier.