A Boy Wants a Doll: What Would You Do?

A father grows uncomfortable when his son challenges gender stereotypes.

January 18, 2011, 9:47 AM

Jan. 21, 2011 — -- Blue is for boys, pink is for girls. Such gender stereotypes have been instilled in all of us since birth, when hospitals attach a colored name card on a newborn's crib.

The stereotyping continues as children grow: Boys are encouraged to play with trucks and action figures, while girls get dolls and play kitchens. What would you do if your child decided to cross the gender boundaries?

We set up our scenario at Meyer's Toys in Livingston, N.J., and send in actors to see what people will say when our father struggles with the thought of buying a doll for his son. Will anyone support the father's decision not to buy the doll, or will they see it as a harmless phase and suggest he give in?

With our hidden cameras rolling, the actors enter the store and the son immediately hits the shelf with the dolls. He pleads and begs his father, "I love Barbies."

The father pushes back, saying, "You got to be kidding me."

Nearby shoppers looking for holiday gifts toss comments to the father.

One woman suggests an alternative, saying, "They have a Ken."

A kindergarten teacher, arguably an expert on the kinds of toys young children prefer, offers advice to our father. "This is very natural for a 5-year-old to want to engage in and play with dolls," she says.

"They like playing with the babies, and they like diapering the babies. I guess they take on the role of the dad."

Later, when our host, John Quinones, asks her for advice for parents, she says, "Just encourage them to explore. Explore whatever they want to do. This is the time."

But can playing with toys considered masculine or feminine change the way a child views his or her gender identity? While a child's environment may play a role, many experts appear to agree that gender identity is largely established by the time the child is born.

When our father suggests his son's doll play will lead to "something else," a woman empathizes with him.

"Unfortunately," she says, "what scares you, if it's there ... it's there. And if it isn't, it isn't. I have a son...," gesturing toward her daughter-in-law, who is with her shopping.

"Her husband, when he was 11, I was positive he was gay. He is so far from ... that it isn't even funny."

Men Less Likely to Chime In

Throughout the day, the women shoppers in this toy store don't mind offering sympathy or advice to our confused father. Meanwhile, the men who shop here seem not to want to get involved.

Then one woman shows us that you can be helpful without saying a word. She hands our dad a piece of paper on which she has written two words: "William's Doll."

"William's Doll" is a 1972 children's book written by Charlotte Zolotow about a boy who wants a doll and a father who is completely against the idea. It sounds similar to our "What Would You Do?" scenario.

Later, when we reveal our cameras, she admits to us, "I didn't want to get involved because the father's in charge of his son. I gave him the note and I just said I think you should read it. It will help you."

When asked if there's anything wrong with a boy playing with a doll, she says, "It's wonderful that he should have that chance. And a little girl should play with trucks. Anyone should play with anything they like."

So far, most of the customers observing our boy's obsession for dolls have been supportive. But what will happen when they see a young boy wearing a princess dress?

The question generated controversy in the media recently when a mother dressed her 5-year-old son in a Daphne costume from his favorite cartoon, "Scooby Doo." She wrote a blog describing how some fellow classroom moms tried to bully her and her son. The blog went viral, triggering millions of hits and more than 45,000 responses.

Another mother, Cheryl Kilodavis, has been making the rounds on television talk shows after writing a book about her 5-year-old son's desire to wear dresses.

The book, "My Princess Boy," deals with the sometimes cruel reactions she and her son have received.

In our scenario, we send in an actor to play the role of a bully who has some choice words for our father and son actors. Will fellow shoppers ignore the bullying or come to the child's defense?

CLICK HERE to watch the full episode.

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