If you walk down a toy store aisle today, you might be tempted to ask what year it is, because some stores still insist on labeling their aisles “boy toys” and “girl toys” (just like some grandparents insist your daughter would really like a miniature vacuum cleaner for her birthday while your son needs a train set). But guess what: Kids don’t care about gender stereotypes! And if they do, it’s because they have learned to — from us or from someone around them. If a toy is fun, they play with it; if it’s not fun, they make it fun using their imagination. After all, kids are the very best version of humans.
My son likes to play with robots, Legos, cuddly stuffed animals, and dolls. We have a play kitchen and a train table, plus dolls galore. And guess what? When given the chance, most boys will play with dolls. And this type of play reaps huge emotional benefits. Dr. Lindsay Henderson, a psychologist who treats patients virtually via telehealth app LiveHealth Online, says boys can actually improve their emotional literacy and practice real-life skills by picking up a doll.
“By playing with dolls, children are exploring and developing skills related to caretaking, nurturing, and even parenthood,” she tells SheKnows. Boys may pretend to be a dad when they nurture a plastic baby doll, but even if their imaginative games have little to do with parenting roles, the type of play associated with dolls is beneficial to all children’s growth and development. “The long-term benefits of playing with dolls are not restricted to future parenthood; empathy, responsiveness, love, and caretaking can be applied to any relationship or interaction throughout life,” says Henderson.
The fact that empathy can be developed is a cold, hard neurological fact, according to a small study conducted by Barbie-maker Mattel and Cardiff University. The research, which included 33 children, showed that even when kids were playing with dolls solo, the area of their brain that is responsible for empathy was activated. It also showed that dolls are instrumental in helping children develop empathy.
“As leaders in the dolls category, we’ve always known that doll play has a positive impact on kids, but up until now, we have not had neuroscientific data that demonstrates these benefits,” Lisa McKnight, SVP and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls, Mattel, said in a press release. “The findings of this research highlights that playing with dolls, such as Barbie, offers positive benefits in preparing children for the future through nurturing social skills like empathy. As we continue to inspire the limitless potential in every child, we are proud to offer dolls that encourage skills we know are highly valued by parents and are determinants in children’s future emotional, academic, and social success.”
And boys need to develop empathy, too. Not sure where to start when it comes to buying a doll for a boy? This list, which includes racially diverse and body-positive buddies, will help. And your little guy will love them.
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A version of this story was originally published in December 2018.