Boys Can Play with Dolls Too: Stepping Outside of Gender Stereotypes

Developmental Psychologists Rebecca Bixler and Lynn Liben proposed in a 2002 study that children learn behaviors consistent with their assigned genders from socializing with others, interpersonal experiences, and cognitive learning. Bandura (1969), noted that gender role behaviors were encouraged through explicit teaching, modeling of others, and various encouraging behaviors that led children to see certain behaviors as positive and others as negative. Overtime, specific behaviors, mannerisms, and ways of being with others are internalized by children and become their norm. For most the internalization of gender role behaviors and expectations are passed down through generations. The age old saying, "boys will be boys" is an example of society's acceptance and expectation that boys will be tough, rough, and rowdy. But what about those boys who are not tough, rough, or rowdy? What about the boys who enjoy art, are sensitive about other's comments, or enjoy playing with stereotypically classified girl toys? Are they then not boys? Will they not turn out to be healthy, successful men?

The latter two questions are of course false!

Multiple studies have shown that gender role expectations have an adverse impact on the emotional expressiveness of boys. From academic underperformance, to increase in anger, to an increase in depression, society's expectation of "boys to be boys" limits their ability to fully express how they are feeling, as well as their confidence to share feelings that are considered sissy, girly, or emotional.

When parents encourage the use of a variety of play materials--cars, army men, footballs, dolls, dress up costumes, and art supplies--a child is given the opportunity to express multiple emotions, master various developmental tasks, and experience what they believe the world is like in different roles (i.e. the fire fighter, teacher, and the stay-at-home daddy). When the use of all types of toys is normalized by parents, I believe that they are modeling for their children that it is appropriate to express themselves in many different ways, and that they are ultimately not confined to one set expectation solely based on their gender assigned at birth. This normalization in turn helps expand a child's willingness to express a wide range of emotions as they grow older, which makes for a more emotional intelligent and confident child.

The next time your son asks you to play princess tea party with him and his sister, grab a tiara and pass the crumpets!