Dear Mr. Dad: My three-year-old daughter insists that I play dolls with her. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up, but I just can’t bring myself to do it—seems too girly for me. My wife says my playing with our daughter will help her in the future. Is that true? And if so, do you have some advice on how to get over my discomfort?
A: First, let me congratulate you on making the right choice—trying to find ways to get over your discomfort is much, much better than trying to find ways to tell your daughter you can’t play with her.
To answer your first question, your wife is absolutely right: playing with your daughter will help her in a variety of important ways. To start with, having a chance to play with you will send her over the moon with joy. But besides that, when your daughter plays with dolls she’s learning a ton of skills that will help her throughout her life. In the short-term, she’s learning how to tie, snap, button, and dress. Long term, she’s discovering who she is. Plus, she’s getting a lot of hands-on practice soothing and caring for babies—something that will come in handy when she makes you a grandfather. All in all, research shows that girls whose dads play with them grow up to be more assertive (in a good way), have more (and better) friends, do better in school, are more self-sufficient, and are less likely to smoke, abuse drugs or alcohol, go to prison, or get pregnant as teens. Pretty powerful stuff.
You’re also sending your daughter some very strong messages about gender roles. Joining in her games tells her that you—the first, and most important man in her life—support her as she is. She’s less likely to feel boxed in by stereotypes, and the way you and your masculine side respond to her and her dolls, will set the tone for how she’ll think of men for the rest of her life.
And speaking of masculine sides, playing with dolls benefits you in a lot of ways, too, not the least of which is that it can help you get rid of some of those traditional gender attitudes you’re dragging around. It won’t take you long to realize that doing “girl things” doesn’t detract from your manhood at all. In fact, it might even make it stronger.
As far as how to get over your discomfort, there are two important things to keep in mind. First, you’re just going to have to close your eyes and jump in. Kids are remarkably forgiving little creatures and your daughter will be delighted to teach you whatever you don’t know about dolls.
Second, don’t forget that female is not a synonym for fragile. It’s perfectly okay to encourage your daughter to explore some traditionally “boy” activities and to treat her like you would if she were a boy. But take your cues from her and don’t try to turn her into a boy. Sure, give her an inflatable baseball bat to play with, but don’t be surprised if she wraps it in a blanket and rocks it to sleep. Wrestle with her every day, but learn how to braid her hair and be prepared to log some hours on tea parties and dress-up. Take her to the driving range—and then to the ballet. Teach her how to throw like a boy and have her help you assemble her new bike, but when you’re done, let her paint your fingernails pink. Bottom line: help her discover who she wants to be and support her every way you can.