My 4-year-old son, Owen, is the coolest lil’ dude you’ll ever meet. Now I’ll admit, I may be somewhat biased because I’m his dad. But he really is pretty amazing. He is smart, but don’t just take my word for it, his preschool teacher said he has an “engineer’s brain,” and she should know because her son is an engineer. He is funny, and not just little kid funny, either. I’m talking about Chris Rock funny but without the cussing. His creativity is apparent nearly every day when he shows my wife and I the masterpieces he colors at school and insists we find yet another spot on his bedroom wall to hang it. He is athletic, blessed with the ability to run like the wind, leap like a frog; has hand and eye coordination that most adults including myself don’t have, and has the strength that he imposes on me most nights during our karate and wrestling matches. He is brave, assertive, kind, and it just so happens that he also likes to play with baby dolls, an activity that I not only have come to allow, but also like.
I must say, I was not always accepting of the idea of my son playing with dolls. As a matter of fact, until a few months ago, I use to discourage such behavior. I can recall Owen being no older than 18-months, grabbing one of his sister’s dolls and dragging it around the house. “Hey boy! Put that down! Boys don’t play with dolls!” was my impulsive response before prying the doll out of his little hand and replacing it with a football or an action figure. Something more suitable for a boy, I thought. Over the next few years, similar situations would arise in which I would discourage and forbid Owen’s interest and desire to play with dolls. “No son! Boys don’t play with dolls, remember? Dolls are for girls!”
“No son! Boys don’t play with dolls, remember? Dolls are for girls!”
There were a few things that helped shape my former view on the whole boys shouldn’t play with dolls thing. Playing the masculine game of football from little league to the NFL, religious views, and the traditional gender roles that society perpetuates are all contributing factors. Perhaps the factor that most influenced my disdain for the idea of my son playing with dolls was influenced by my cultural upbringing. As a Black kid raised in the inner city of Detroit, I understood at a young age the rules and expectations that govern acceptable behavior for a boy. It was clearly communicated that boys need to engage in “masculine” activities. The rougher the behavior, the better it was. But that wasn’t all. Anything that did not fit into this imaginary boy-box was viewed as “soft,” which of course was not a good thing because boys are supposed to be “hard.” In my neighborhood and at school, boys either had to play with toys like G.I. Joe and Ninja Turtles, play sports, roughhouse, fight, or be a ladies man. The only other acceptable alternative was to do nothing at all. Doing nothing was considered better than participating in the performing arts, cooking, and other activities that were traditionally viewed as “feminine”.
What caused my change of heart? This past summer, I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time at home with my family. I witnessed and participated in daily imaginary play with my children. One particular day, I was sitting in the house watching them play in the backyard when I noticed that my son was pushing a baby stroller with one of his sister’s dolls in it. Instead of rushing over to chastise him, I decided to just watch. As I was observing, I heard Owen tell his sisters that he was a daddy and he was taking his baby to play. Then he spent the next few minutes playing with the doll very similarly to the way that I play with him and his sisters. He rotated between pushing the doll in the stroller, shooting hoops, chasing his sisters with sticks, playing in the dirt, and playing “daddy” by checking in on his baby every now and then. As the summer continued, I witnessed my son feed, wash, and even tuck-in baby dolls for bedtime. And I let it happen. It finally hit me-my son was imitating me! He was using his imagination to practice being a daddy. The more I observed this the more I realized that I’ve had it all wrong. And that I have been robbing my son of the opportunity to practice being nurturing, loving, and caring-all attributes he will need to fulfill one of the most important roles he may ever have.
“It finally hit me-my son was imitating me! He was using his imagination to practice being a daddy.”
This past weekend my family and I were hanging out in Greektown (a very popular and busy area in Detroit). My son, who was in full daddy mode, decided to take his daughter, aka the baby doll, into the local restaurant and instead he left Spider-Man in the car. As we walked to and through the restaurant, I noticed numerous stares, mostly from men. They looked at my son, as he dragged the baby doll alongside him, and then their eyes would immediately shift to me. No words were needed as I had a pretty good idea of what they were thinking. I too use to give the same dumbfounded stares and had the same perplexed thoughts. Thoughts like, “What are you thinking,” and “Are you really just going to allow your son to play with a doll?” Well, let me tell you what I’m thinking. I was thinking that the rate of fatherless children, especially in the Black community is catastrophic. I was thinking, it’s a problem that so many fathers are physically present but emotionally absent; fathers who aren’t emotionally healthy enough to love their children freely and unrestricted. So if my son playing with a doll enables him to practice fatherhood and envision himself as a present, loving, and nurturing dad, then yes, I am okay with it.
by Jonathan Orr
To keep it short, I am a man striving to become more like Jesus Christ daily, a husband, a father to three, a former NFL player, and the founder of Athlete Transition Services Corp.