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2012-09-17 08.05.44

Boys – wearing the dresses! in the dollhouse area! carrying a purse!  rocking a baby!  This is not where they belong!

You have heard in once, twice, a million times!  Why is my child (boy) playing in the dress up area?  Sometimes it is a worried Dad.  Sometimes it is a concerned Mama.  This article is an exploration of gender development and why we should not ask a boy who loves the dresses to hide in the closet or discourage him if he loves to play in the areas that are “not traditionally” the boy areas.

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If a girl plays in the block area with cars we seem to feel comfortable with that but as a society boys in areas that are stereotyped as “girl” interests seem to create an alarming reaction.  Parents and sometimes teachers often send the message (or directly tell) boys to take off that dress!  But, why?  Is there some reason why boys should be excluded from certain avenues of play?

Every year of teaching there is at least one boy that is in love with playing in the “girl” areas (whether it be the dolls, dress-up clothes, the housekeeping area, or the doll house).  Which means every year I am looking for fuel to back me up when I am asked about why the boys are wearing dresses or holding baby dolls.  Every year I need to collect more evidence about how the benefits are endless and that the risks are simply unlikely fears.  My most recent fuel finds include:

  • Boys and Girls: Superheros in the Doll Corner by Vivian Paley (I recently stumbled upon this and now plan to read this cover to cover)
  • Why Kids Should Play with Baby Dolls (YES, even BOYS!) (a blog entry from a trio of Mommies and professionals an OT, pediatric speech-language pathologist, and a clinical psychologist.http://mamaot.com/2012/11/25/why-kids-should-play-with-baby-dolls-yes-even-boys/
  • My Princess Boy by C. Kilodavis (a children’s book written by a Mom with a little boy that loves playing princess)

Dressing up, whether in fireman hats or dresses (boys or girls) gives children a chance to explore roles and the attributes associated with these roles.  Yes, sometimes playing a role is testing it out.  But, just because a boy plays Mommy doesn’t mean he desires to become a Mommy (or a girl).  Just as every pretend Hulk does not produce a future green monster, every little police officer does not end up a crime fighter, every “bad guy” does not grow up to be a criminal, or every pretend doctor does not aspire to work in the medical field.  Sometimes a child chooses a role because the others are taken.  Sometimes he chooses it because it is the character who is in charge (so he may end up the Mommy so he can control the play scenario).  Sometimes he just loves that dress because it is green and green is his favorite color.  At preschool age children are defining their personalities and expressing their preferences.  The are exploring all the places and experiences offered to them.  Play allows children to explore the world safely and will full ambition.  Even if a child chooses to dress up because he likes to be pretty – who are we to say he shouldn’t?  Do we want to send the message to our children at a young age that we have already found ways to exclude them or judge them?  I think not.

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A boy playing Daddy (or Mommy) in the housekeeping area provides practice for care taking and kind behaviors.  Any child whom engages in baby doll play, housekeeping roles, and dress up is given the opportunity to expand socially, emotionally, and cognitively.

Would you object to a child learning how to:

  • be gentle
  • care for others
  • be independent
  • complete daily tasks
  • excel in the role of parenthood or family member
  • organize
  • negotiate, cooperate, and communicate with a group
  • plan and direct an activity
  • appreciate the design of materials and environments

I wouldn’t and I am sure that nobody else would either.  These are all skills that happen in the dramatic play area (the place where dresses hang, dolls sleep, houses filled with mini families exist, and where Moms and Dads cook in the pretend kitchen).

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The fact is that in general society sends the message that non-traditional activities should be discouraged.  We feel that if we let a boy dress up in a dress or carry a purse when he is 3 then he will want to do so later.  When really this is not factual evidence.  There will be boys that dress up in dresses at 3 and that never will again.  There will be boys who did not like to dress-up at 3 and may like wearing dresses later in life.  As adults we should be more concerned about what we can do for our child’s present being than worry about how every current play experience will shape their lives 20 years from now.  It is not to say that we should not provide quality experiences that will shape the future of our children.  However, we should consider the possibilities side by side.  As adults we need to realize the benefits out weigh the chances of these behaviors carrying on in adulthood.  We also need to reevaluate why we fear these possibilities.  The love for our children should be priority and not our intolerance.  Is it worth saying that a child should miss out on all of the benefits (including: extended vocabulary, social just behaviors, compassion for others, daily life skills, leadership skills) of dramatic play, dress-up, and doll play because there is a slight chance that he may like pink robes and purple flowers when he is a grown man.  It is more likely that those amazing housekeeping and dress-up skills will lead to impeccable architectural designs, award winning chef creations, creative artistic results, well spoken project leaders, and men with gentle fathering skills.

It is time to focus on letting children explore who they want to be in this moment rather than who they want to be as an adult.  By providing love, support, and quality experiences we are letting children build a healthy foundation for the future.  Boys will be boys – and everything else their heart desires.

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