Playing with dolls will develop caring side of boys

We need to get our sons playing with dolls in order to encourage their caring side and, in turn, get more of them into the caring profession. At least that’s what Jo Swinson the Lib Dem Equalities Minster argues. She also wants more girls playing with traditionally boys’ toys such as K’nex.

Ms Swinson is quoted in the Independent as saying there is a huge shortage of men in the care sector. She’s not wrong: our aging population, relatively high birth rate and more people living longer with chronic conditions mean that there is demand for people in the care sector. However for many men this sector does not seem to even be a consideration, according to ONS figures released in 2013 men account for only 18% of people working in caring and leisure occupations.

So the potential is there if only we can get boys playing with Barbie, to simplify Ms Swinson’s arguments somewhat.

What is preventing young boys from playing with Cabbage Patch dolls? The first part of our answer is the parents. One study by Emily Kane of Bates College found that parents are aware and concerned about the impact that their role has on forming their children’s gender identities. They encourage gender nonconformity (boys play with kitchen sets, girls with chemistry sets) in both genders. However they temper what they teach their sons by adding in a need to conform to societal pressures around masculinity.  That is the whole strong ambitions type who experiences no sadness. It seems that things are moving in the right direction though not too long ago it would have been complete conformity. Given that parents are aware it seems likely progress will continue so long as the message stays in the public eye (or at least parenting books).

The second part of our answer is that manufacturers and shops also have a role to play. Adverts for toys tend to focus on one gender or the other. Shops tend to split their toys into pink and blue sections. In reaction to this the Let Toys Be Toys campaign was founded.  They argue that toys shouldn’t be sorted by gender but by theme or function leaving it up to the child what they play with. They have had some successful. Lots of big names in the shop world have agreed to remove boys and girls signage. This includes Tesco, Marks and Spencer and even Center Parcs.  

So there does appear to be scope for men to move into the care sector and for us to get both genders playing with all kinds of toys but is that really the whole problem tied up with a neat bow? I remember playing with Meccano and Lego but would be just as open to the idea of moving into the care sector as I would be to the idea of becoming an engineer, for broadly speaking the same reasons.

So we need to know if the toys we play with as children actually affect the careers we take up as adults. This is unfortunately the sort of question which is hard to answer as so many things influence people as they grow up we may never be able to prove it 100% but it does seem to have an impact.

One study found that dressing up Barbie in outfits of typically male dominated careers (fire-fighter, astronaut etc.) lead to young girls changing their minds about whether they could do the job or not. There is also quite a bit of anecdotal evidence some examples can be found in this Guardian article. Broadly speaking it seems toys do affect career aspirations and outcomes to some extent but the true degree of impact is ultimately unknowable.

So getting boys to play with dolls seems like a good idea but there are bigger problems. Men looking to work in childcare, for example, are put off for fear they will be branded paedophiles and will get flack for their unmanly career. Prospective male social workers have a higher attrition rate though training programmes which may be due to being singled out by lectures and worries about their role in child protection. Put simply the care sector seems unwelcoming to a man on the outside.

Of course this could all link back around; the stigma around these careers could arise be because we boys aren’t given the opportunity to develop their caring side as publicly as girls. If young boys push along play pushchairs as often as their sisters it could, slowly, result in a shift in public perceptions.

Whatever the case giving our sons, and daughters, more opportunities to experience different types of play seem like a good idea. If it allows more men to pursue a career in care or women become engineers than that’s just a plus.

Photo by Janine “nincoco” found on Flickr used under creative commons licence.