When I was a little boy, I had a doll named Freddy. My dear, sweet, ever-supportive mom bought it — sorry, him — for me from our local Toys ‘R Us, and he was sold under the brand name My Pal. This was either a cheap knockoff or a blond knockoff of the well-known brunette My Buddy doll that had a ubiquitous jingle in the ‘80s. (“My buddy… my buddy… wherever I go… he-e-e goes.”)
The freckle-faced, dimple-chinned, round-cheeked, button-nosed Freddy and I were inseparable. I loved that little guy for years, sitting him next to me while I played or read books. My mom even found me a kid-sized suitcase in which I kept an array of outfits for him. I had several close (human) friends as a boy, so I was very much not a lonely kid. But Freddy was my buddy at home, my pal who I could have a sleepover with every night.
I don’t know how many boys in the mid-to-late ‘80s had dolls. But I do know it must have at least been enough to prop up the seemingly profitable My Buddy empire (and the lesser My Pal sub-empire) while it competed with Cabbage Patch Kids and Pound Puppies for doll-manufacturing supremacy in the ‘80s.
I am convinced that having a little guy of my own to take care of was seminal for my early adolescent development. Being given a buddy (or pal) to dress, to hug, and to play with was formative. Therein lay the early seeds of my eventual commitment to and love of fatherhood.
35 years later, I have 2 young kids of my own. One boy and one girl. So far they have only sporadically shown interest in doll-having, although they’re each pretty enamored of their roughly 133 stuffed animals. I’ve warmly introduced them to my old pal Freddy, who is a little worse for wear (particularly his oddly receding hairline). But while the kids seem to like and respect him, they haven’t taken him under their wing just yet.
Freddy, to his credit, just keeps Mona-Lisa-smiling through it all. He doesn’t appear to be as insecure or eager for attention as Woody or the other members of the Toy Story crew. I think he’s just happy to still be in the game, even if he’s now riding the pine. (Which I suppose is appropriate since the boy who took care of him for roughly 7 years would do that very thing during the entirety of his 7-year bench-warming basketball career.)
Dolls, or whatever you want to call them if that word feels gendered or off-putting, are hugely beneficial for kids. They foster a love for babies and an empathy for others in general. They give a child a sense of responsibility. They provide a feeling of companionship when the outside world doesn’t consistently provide that.
And I wish this went without saying, but it doesn’t: All of those things are exactly as vital for little boys as they are for little girls.
It is my decided opinion that gender norms and gender roles were deeply regressive (and unimaginative) in my grandparents’ era. They were a bit less regressive (and very slightly more imaginative) in my parents’ era. And for a while, it seemed like they were being reformed and reframed in our own, more progressive generation. Like we were finally getting around to reimagining these ways of seeing our children, and ourselves.
But in the last half-decade or so, it seems to me that a not-insignificant portion of our population is trying to revert us backward once again. Back to a time when girls are expected to be feminine and passive and nurturing and boys are expected to be manly and aggressive and hard.
Leaving aside the former contention for now, which I could write a whole book about, I want to explain as a father and man (and former little boy) how I feel about the latter one. The idea that boys should be tough, hard, aggressive, and above all… masculine. That word which has been misunderstood in our society beyond almost all others.
I’ll distill my thesis here as concisely as I can: Boys should be allowed to be who they are. Whatever that is. And however much, or little, that resembles any traditional or modern conception of masculinity.
As a kid, I was not interested in most “boys will be boys” things. I wasn’t physically aggressive in the slightest, and my brothers weren’t either. I had minimal mechanical skills. At no point in my life have I cared about macho action movies. I was never interested in playing with toy guns (other than the occasional Supersoaker).
I did like playing basketball, and I became a pro sports fanatic at the age of 9 or 10, luring a few of my family members into that fun web. So that’s one thing on the so-called “boyish” side of my ledger. But my wife was even more into pro sports as a kid than I was, and remains deeply knowledgeable about it, including the badass sport of hockey. So the ledger itself would appear to be broken in the first place.
But back to me, I was just as in touch with my “feminine” side (whatever that even means) as my “masculine” side as a kid. Besides my pal Freddy, I also had a collection of teddy bears. And the fact that my conservative parents were fine with all of that is a testament to their deep parental love. In addition to my aforementioned deeply tender and empathetic mom, I also give huge credit to my sweet, supportive, warmly fatherly, decidedly un-macho dad. (Who happens to have much better mechanical skills than I do in terms of fixing things around the house.)
My 2 best friends in 4th and 5th grade, Farhad and Keith, both turned out to be gay. And I’m guessing the reason that the 3 of us were relative outcasts at Hampden Elementary, the public school I attended with them for 2 years, was because we weren’t boyish boys. They were gay (although they may or may not have known it back then), I was straight (I can still remember all of my crushes at that school), and all of us got along great because we didn’t judge each other for not liking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers or whatever metrics of masculinity boys judged each other by in 1990.
So I grew up feeling comfortable being myself in matters of gender and personality. Which is a bit of a miracle since plenty of pockets of evangelicalism (and society in general) during that period, and still to this day, would be ones where I would have been pressured to act more traditionally boyish. But my parents were sensitive souls raised in pacifist Brethren in Christ churches. So their 3 sons grew up to be similarly sensitive and peace-loving.
Fast forward to the present, when my wife and I are raising a 5-year-old boy and a delightful 3-year-old girl. Here’s how well our kids fit into the old-fashioned gender framework.
Our son rarely builds anything, while our daughter enjoys doing so. Our son does create elaborate flights of fancy, in the form of little free-wheeling stories and poems and songs. And our daughter does the same thing. Our daughter loves to throw, catch, and kick balls, while our son does not. Our son is a reflective person who likes to sometimes recharge by being alone in his thoughts. Meanwhile, our daughter is a dynamic person of action. She also has superb mechanical skills that dwarf our son’s.
Our son is single-minded and absent-minded and (in our opinion) brilliant. Our daughter is multi-focused and hyper-aware and (in our opinion) brilliant. Both are wondrous and maddening and funny and delightful in totally different ways.
Our son is a sensitive and easily bruised and sweet and wildly idiosyncratic soul, and our daughter is sweet but indomitable (and also wildly idiosyncratic, but in a totally different direction). Our son is like my 5-year-old self in some ways and like his mama’s 5-year-old self in other ways. Our daughter is strong and self-possessed like her mama and an affectionate, attention-seeking goofball like me. Each of them is also simply themselves and no one else on earth.
Our son is not a “boyish” boy in most ways. Our daughter is not a “girly” girl in most ways.
So you’ll forgive me if gender norms strike me as irrelevant and useless.
They didn’t do justice to my kid self.
They don’t do justice to my grown-up self.
They don’t do justice to my kids’ selves.
And they do an injustice to the very concept of self.
Because regardless of ledgers and templates, we are all simply…