When my preschool son told me that “boys don’t cry” three years ago, my heart sank. I remember thinking to myself, “We live in a progressive town, we talk endlessly about feelings at home, and I’m a therapist for goodness sake — how did this happen?”
Then came a light bulb moment: If kids learned through play, where are the toys that encourage boys to express feelings? They didn’t exist, and their absence was sending the message to many boys that this type of play or this way of being wasn’t for them.
Fast-forward: I created Wonder Crew, dolls inspired by boys, to help expand the definition of masculinity. I wanted to send a new message to boys, one that said yes, you can be kind, caring, nurturing, emotional, and adventurous, strong, creative and more — a message that that moved beyond gender stereotypes and encouraged all aspects of their identity.
Here’s what I learned about boys, dolls, and nurturing:
1. It’s about semantics.
Words are powerful. Of course some families have long embraced the idea of dolls for their boys, some never had an issue with walking down the “pink” aisle and picking up a little one for their son to love, and that’s awesome! But for many, the word “doll” is a four-letter word in more ways than one. Back in graduate school, one of my favorite classes was psycholinguistics, where I learned if we change the language, we change the thought. What happens when we call a doll something a little different, like a friend or a buddy? The stigma goes away because friendship is universal.
Kids (and grown-ups) crave connection — it’s a human response, not a gender-specific one. Although this wasn’t shocking to me, it has been incredible to see just how tender and caring boys can be in their play. We’ve seen several adorable bedtime rituals including images of sweet tuck-ins with capes placed neatly on the rail of the bed, ready for the next day, tons of boys pretending to be “daddy” or “big brother,” hugs and kisses galore, boys comforting their dolls, or rather buddies, during thunder storms, and some super-cool homemade carrying slings.
3. Bromance is real and friendship is crucial.
We joke about male friendships, especially the deeper ones. Meanwhile, we socialize our girls to cultivate loving friendships by being open and vulnerable. Boys don’t get the same message. Instead, at a certain age, many feel pressure to become tough and self-reliant. Studies show that strong relationships along with the ability to connect emotionally are keys to happiness, health, and even career success. Imagine if all kids got the message early on that vulnerability offered emotional resilience and strength.
4. Inclusion matters.
Kids are intensely perceptive and attuned to the world around them. When they’re represented, children tend to feel included and valued; if not, the opposite takes place. I created Wonder Crew with boys in mind because this was the unrepresented group. There weren’t any toys out there that gave boys the green light to connect and nurture. And of course, it doesn’t stop here: There are so many ways to be more inclusive, and it makes all the difference.
5. Gender equality takes all genders.
When I attended my first toy industry trade show a few years ago, many people stopped by the booth offering high-fives and big smiles. One person, however, remarked, “Boy empowerment? Don’t you know the trend is girls, not boys?” Our culture assumes that the boys are doing just fine, so why focus on them? Girls need empowerment. And for different reasons, boys need empowerment too. If we want to see gender equality, then we need to start raising more balanced kids.
You know how sometimes you get stuck in that black and white thinking? Most of us hit a wall when we go down this path, especially when raising kids. After working with clients of all ages for almost 15 years, I’ve learned that when we see ourselves as multifaceted people with many feelings and potentials that can coexist all at once and we’re okay with it, we thrive. One of the fringe benefits of Wonder Crew has been witnessing so many kids experiment with the awesome hybrids that they are! They can be superheroes and nurturers; one does not cancel out the other. They can be strong and scared or vulnerable. They can be many things and try on many different hats (literally and figuratively) and still be themselves.