Are Doll Houses Okay for Boys?

Photo of a boy and a girl playing with a Ryan's Room Home is Where the Heart Is Wooden Dollhouse. Click to visit a retailer who sells this dollhouse.

Thing-reader HM has a dollhouse dilemma. She shared in a Thinga blog comment that she wants to buy her 2.5-year-old boy a dollhouse, but her husband says dollhouses are “too girly.”

Uh oh. Them is gender-stereotyping fightin’ words. I asked HM for details. Here is her abbreviated story:

The boy, I’ll call him Alvin, regularly plays with two boys and three girls. His mom noticed he loves playing with a girl friend’s dollhouse, so she suggested to her husband that they buy a dollhouse.

The dad says he:

  • Doesn’t have a problem with his son playing with dollhouses at friends’ houses.
  • Doesn’t think Alvin’s toys are going to affect his sexuality.
  • Does think Alvin has everything he needs to ‘act out things in a house’ because he has a toy barn. Alvin plays with the barn as if it were a dollhouse and the animals as if they were people.

The dad sounds fairly reasonable, right? Hold the phone.

He also thinks Alvin doesn’t need another toy with a large ‘footprint’ when he already has a toy barn and a garage. However, when discussing Christmas gifts he suggested a toy airport, toy workbench or toy saw.

Anyhow, she writes, “When I asked him to expand on the ‘too girly’ comment, he smiled and said, ‘It is just too girly.’”

Uh oh. You can’t argue with a non-argument. There are unexpressed issues here.

HM felt the need to point out to me:

“My husband is not into sports at all, and has often told me about how his father ridiculed him because he did not play football. His ‘manly’ hobbies include tinkering, fixing, or building things. He has emphasized the fact that he will never pressure his son into such things or make him feel ‘less of a person’ if he doesn’t want to do ‘boy things.’ In college we had many friends who were gay, still do. So, basically, I was really surprised (and a little amused) with his opinion on this dollhouse thing.”

Problem #1: Dad won’t pressure Alvin to have manly hobbies, but he will oppose girly toys in his home. Umm, what?

Problem #2: Being effeminate doesn’t mean being gay. I know a boy who, when he was 5-years-old, loved unicorns and the color pink. He had a lot of pink toys, a pink bicycle and we even gave him a unicorn costume that he wore to school. Most of his friends at the time were girls. He grew out of his pink phase as he made more male friends. More recently, I’ve seen him wear military camouflage-themed clothing, and not because of any reactionary influence from his dad. He is still a very kind and generous boy who loves to read to our daughter.

Problem #3: Gayness shouldn’t even be part of this discussion. If playing with toys associated with girls doesn’t make you gay, why raise the issue of gayness? A boy acting like a girl isn’t gay; it’s an issue of gender identity, or being “transgender.” Gay people don’t rush out in droves to get sex change operations. And role playing with a dollhouse isn’t even a gender issue; it’s normal for all kids. We’ll talk about that in a moment.

Next, the mother floated the idea of buying a doll instead of a dollhouse.

She said, “I take care of (our) new baby; our son could take care of his baby. My husband laughed and said, ‘No. That would not be okay either!’

That nails it for me. I have to call shenanigans. I don’t believe the dad. Deep down he seems to fear that his son will be negatively affected by regular play with a dollhouse or dolls in his home.

Oh, but AJ, you say… you’re so hypocritical. You’re on record opposing the princess syndrome for your own daughter.

Indeed, I do my best to steer my daughter away from stereotypically girly things such as Disney princess merchandise (actually, all mass-marketed branded characters) and baby dolls.

I bought a classic Candy Land board game for my daughter, not one adorned with Dora the Explorer. I nearly gagged seeing a Spiderman-themed Sorry! board game yesterday at a store.

I am reactionary to popular culture in general and fear that American society trains boys to be athletes and girls to be sex objects. Toys like Bratz Dolls or pop icons like Cheetah Girls and Pussycat Dolls come to mind when the word “skank” is uttered, but a princess is also not a strong independent role model for a girl. A princess’ chief job is to be beautiful and wait for her man in shining armor.

All-brawn icons are out too. I shudder at the idea of dressing my boy due in March in clothing adorned with toy trucks and baseballs.

I’m not saying brawn and beauty are bad. I’d love my kids to have both, but learning is the first priority. My daughter could become a fashion model and my son a football player, but don’t confuse the bona fide skills required for those occupations with the foundation laid by a traditional school education. I want my kids to have well-rounded brains to fall back on when age takes hold.

My daughter has a princess hat and three sets of fairy wings so that everyone in the family can wear them. She even has dreaded Disney princess pajamas given to us as a gift. And my boy will have his share of toy cars, fire trucks and dump trucks and if he wants to play little league instead of soccer that will be okay.

The difference I draw it to not passively immerse my kids in popular culture without questioning each step. Society is moving along blindly like a freight train, dumbing our kids down into idiocratic superficial adults.

I don’t have a foolproof contradiction-free parenting philosophy by any measure. It is uncharted territory for parents who attempt to swim against the tide.

So anyhow… regarding dollhouses. We have a dollhouse. I’ve never reviewed it on Thingamababy because I can’t recommend it for quality control reasons. It’s natural wood with some parts painted a gender-neutral orange and green. And we moved an Asian doll family into the home. I chose the house thinking, “A boy would play with this thing, too.”

That’s an important point. Boys and girls play with dollhouses and get different things from the experience. Maybe the girl puts a baby in a crib, and the boy mows the imaginary lawn. Or vice versa. Kids role-play what they see their parents doing, and their friends’ families doing. This need to role-play will be expressed whether it’s through a dollhouse, or dress-up clothes, or a kitchen play set, or stuffed animals, or from thin air if need be.

I ran this article by a friend who added this gem observation: the dad should “realize he has a golden opportunity to interact with his son in showing him what a dad does in a house.” Yep, dad, you should be down there on the ground playing dollhouse with your son.

Dollhouses are only a gender issue because toy marketers make them one. We shape our parenting approaches around marketing messages. Dollhouses are supposed to be a girl thing, and just to be sure, we only see girls playing with them in advertisements, and the houses are slathered in pink (it took me 45 minutes to track down the photo at the top of this page). How many of us really live in pink houses?

So, buy a natural wood house from a more enlightened company. Or, as HM proposed to her husband, buy a tree house with squirrels dressed in human clothing. You can’t get more removed from “girly” than that, short of buying action figures equipped with firearms.

Oof. Gun toys. Don’t get me started on violence-as-entertainment.

Photo of a Zamiloo Tree House from Djeco, plus a squirrel family doll set dressed in human clothing. Click to visit a retailer selling this brand product.


18 Responses to “Are Doll Houses Okay for Boys?”

  1. Vic says:

    There are some pretty cool boyish dolls houses out there. For example the “Woodland Adventures Tower of Doom” from Step2
    It even comes with a non traditional family of an orc, a ghoul, and a soldier of the dead!

    My husband can’t wait till our twin boys are old enough to play with this kind of thing and expand on their imaginations.

    October 30th, 2007 at 6:24 am

  2. Kaely says:

    My son has a doll house and loves it. He’d been playing with my little antique dollhouse that my grandmother gave me when I was little and at 3 he just wasn’t being as gentle as I wanted him to be (not to mention the possible lead paint issues)… so rather than stressing out everytime he wanted to touch it, I got him his own.

    He also has several baby dolls, a doll bed, a couple of tutus in the dress up box, a play kitchen, and a huge collection of tiny “my little ponies” (my husband does hate this last one, but mostly because Bear wanted to read the my little pony books at the bookstore over and over again). We also have building toys, balls, dumptrucks, etc, we’re well rounded in terms of toys here.

    I don’t get the whole it’s a boy toy, it’s a girl toy thing personally. They’re just toys. My requirements are that they don’t just do one thing, that batteries are not required for it to be useful (I think our piano keyboard is our one exception to this rule) and that they not be branded with some character. We don’t even mind a little bit of pink here and there.

    I have a friend whose husband was totally against getting their son a play kitchen because it was a “girl toy”. Grandma bought the kid one for christmas. A bit passive aggressive, but…

    October 30th, 2007 at 6:51 am

  3. nathan says:

    Buy the dang dollhouse. Dollhouses were previously a way of indoctrinating girls into being domestic and caregivers, but in this day and age both men and women take on those roles.

    Dollhouses also don’t have to be about traditional women’s roles, either. The traditional male roles can be played out, as well, including fixing stuff, mowing the lawn, carving turkeys, watching football, etc. :-)

    Dollhouses can also be turned into haunted houses, or places for Santa to come, or the alternate home for a superhero above their secret lair, or a disaster location for rescue workers to work at, etc., etc., etc.

    But, seriously, I had a dollhouse and turned out pretty much OK. It was not as much fun as my Legos, but it still got a good workout.

    October 30th, 2007 at 7:02 am

  4. shirky says:

    I have the same problems and I am trying to think more about them–I have rejected some handmedown pajamas with butterflies for my son–which is super stupid, and I need to get a grip, so I feel for the dad, but I also see how it’s an opportunity to get smarter about this stuff. We can think about why we use “girly” pejoratively, and why “girly” is juxtaposed with “manly”–instead of “boyish”.

    October 30th, 2007 at 7:04 am

  5. Mama Luxe says:

    I suspect his concern is less that he thinks it will make his son gay (or that this is a bad thing) but that others will react the way his Dad reacted to his lack of interest in sports.

    As parents, we consciously and and subconsciously often react out of a desire to protect our children from ridicule…and I believe that is what is happening here.

    And it is true that in our culture “girly” is looked down upon as frivolous…whereas it is okay for girls to play with what are perceived as more masculine toys.

    In the long run, though, I also call shenanigans on mom. She is manufacturing an issue. Their child did not ask for a doll house.

    If he does, then as long as it doesn’t run contrary to the family’s values (and I can’t imagine how a doll house would) and is affordable, then they should get him this toy that stimulates imagination and encourages role playing. Until then, though, it is really a non-issue.

    October 30th, 2007 at 8:02 am

  6. Kate says:

    I’m thinking of buying my boys a doll house for Christmas, but I’m worried that if it is eventually perceived (by them, thanks to the marketing of “doll” houses) as a girl toy, that they’ll shun it and I won’t get my money’s worth.

    I do everything I can to provide a gender neutral environment, but I’m not their only cultural influence… and I wouldn’t want to be!

    That said — where is the small, simple, plain wood house with rooms to pass through and a staircase? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist. Or it does, in tree form, for $150. I’m aiming for under $50, considering I’ll need to furnish it, as well.

    October 30th, 2007 at 10:40 am

  7. Alex says:

    I cannot believe this is even an argument. So do boys and men not live in houses? Since they do I think they should have the opportunity to play with them too -equal right. Here in Europe (northern anyway) doll houses are seen as gender neutral play toys. You should see some of the architecturally awesome houses! We’ve got mod, traditional shotgun houses cranes on the top, house boats, farm houses, etc -the idea of them coming in only pink would suck out the color of life out of me.

    October 30th, 2007 at 12:16 pm

  8. KGS says:

    The squirrel house is a great idea and will probably get more long-term use from a boy, too bad it’s a bit pricey. As a tomboyish little girl I rejected anything “too girly.” My dad built me a nice plain wooden dollhouse, which I used for years with a “non-girly” family of toy mice. My brother played with it as a toddler, but stopped when he hit school age (unless I managed to persuade him it was a Star Wars location). I think something non-dollhouse-shaped that functions the same way will have a longer lifespan for a boy, as odds are he’ll eventually reject “girl toys” no matter what his parents do (unless you live in an isolated cave in the woods). Toy kitchen advertisements are less strongly gendered these days, but unfortunately dollhouses are still presented as very much girls-only territory.

    October 30th, 2007 at 12:55 pm

  9. Chelsea says:

    Does anyone remember this song from their youth?

    Williams Doll from the Free to be You and Me Soundtrack.

    When my friend William was five years old
    He wanted a doll, to hug and hold
    “A doll,” said William, “is what I need
    To wash and clean, and dress and feed

    “A Doll to give a bottle to
    And put to bed when day is through
    And any time my doll gets ill
    I’ll take good care of it,” said my friend Bill

    A doll, a doll, William wants a doll
    Don’t be a sissy said his best friend Ed
    Why should a boy want to play with a doll
    Dolls are for girls said his cousin Fred
    Don’t be a jerk, said his older brother
    “I know what to do,” said his father to his mother

    So his father bought him a basketball
    A badminton set, and that’s not all
    A bag of marbles, a baseball glove
    And all the things a boy would love

    And Bill was good at every game
    Enjoyed them all, but all the same
    When Billy’s father praised his skill
    “Can I please have a doll now,” said my friend Bill

    A doll, a doll, William wants a doll
    A doll, a doll, William wants a doll

    Then William’s grandma arrived one day
    And wanted to know what he liked to play
    And Bill said, “Baseball’s my favorite game
    I like to play, but all the same

    “I’d give my bat and ball and glove
    To have a doll that I could love”
    “How very wise,” his grandma said
    Said Bill, “but everyone says this instead”

    A doll, a doll, William wants a doll
    A doll, a doll, William wants a doll

    So William’s grandma, as I’ve been told
    Bought William a doll, to hug and hold
    And William’s father began to frown
    But grandma smiled, and calmed him down

    Explaining, William wants a doll
    So when he has a baby someday
    He’ll know how to dress it, put diapers on double
    And gently caress it to bring up a bubble
    And care for his baby as every good father
    Should learn to do

    William has a doll, William has a doll
    ‘Cause someday he is gonna be a father, too

    My son’s favourite toy is a dollhouse, it’s a great toy for play and imagination!

    October 30th, 2007 at 1:51 pm

  10. jm says:

    Buy the doll house. The kid will decide for himself how he will play with it. When I was a kid all I wanted was the Star Wars Death Star play set ( which now that I think about it was really a kind of doll house ) I never got one so I substituted other toy buildings to be my Death Star. If I would have had a doll house like the one in the picture it would have become my Death Star.

    October 30th, 2007 at 4:53 pm

  11. adrienne says:

    So, this morning we met my dad for breakfast. I mentioned the fact that I’m trying to decide which doll to buy my 2 year old son- a waterproof Tidoo or a anatomically correct (which might be good during potty training) doll.

    My dad said, “You’re not getting him a doll, it’s an action figure!” I almost fell of my chair laughing.

    So a baby action figure it is.

    October 31st, 2007 at 8:00 am

  12. Noisette's Maman says:

    My girl and my boy like playing with their Melissa and Doug Fold and Go Dollhouse… gender neutral colors and it’s less than $50.

    October 31st, 2007 at 9:40 am

  13. Erin says:

    My 1 1/2 year old loves playing with dolls and even sleeps with his own special ragdoll. I would have no problem buying him a dollhouse if he wanted one, however, I do believe that boys and girls and different and tend to gravitate toward different toys. You can’t force a boy to want a dollhouse, but, I’m all for it if he wants one.

    November 1st, 2007 at 7:47 pm

  14. Julie C says:

    How about this this cute jungle tree house by Hearthsong? That oughta be manly enough for Daddy…

    November 2nd, 2007 at 11:29 am

  15. Alisha says:

    I just love this site, and this article is really representative of why. My husband and I are expecting our first (a boy) in February, and I am really hating all the boy clothes out there. Everything has trucks or puppies! Well, we have cats, dammit, and I want cat clothes for my son. Doesn’t look like it’s happening. I like the idea of gender neutral toys or even a dollhouse… makes me wonder if I shouldn’t have this discussion with my husband this evening.

    Thanks, as always, for writing such great pieces.

    November 3rd, 2007 at 1:06 pm

  16. Bee says:

    I survived on action figures as a kid; but I had to buy my boys their own dolls.

    You see I grew up to be a childminder (that’s a Brit daycare provider). To role-play and copy their daddy, they had to have a baby doll to cuddle, feed, cart around in a sling… and the dog was starting to protest.

    November 6th, 2007 at 2:01 pm

  17. Kathy says:

    My son (7)has been asking for a doll house. We call them little houses, though. I will probably get him one for Christmas and we can all build it together. I think it is completely okay for boys to have dollhouses and baby dolls. Here is one I like. It is affordable and made in the USA and comes unpainted.

    November 10th, 2007 at 5:58 pm

  18. Living says:

    I don’t have children. My brother didn’t play with my dollhouse when he was little (he wasn’t interested). But you can bet that when I do have children I’ll be giving any boys a dollhouse as well. Dolls aren’t just for girls- they represent humans. The rest is up to the child. And what’s wrong with playing dad with a baby doll?
    Dollhouses are similar in that really, it’s up to the child how they play with it. Real dads/men live in houses, and do things in houses- so why can’t boys make the dollhouse figures do those things too? Makes no sense to me.

    If you check out my website you’ll see just how gender neutral many adult dollhouses can be- they’re just portraying history. That’s not girly. And you can make them even more masculine if you want.

    January 29th, 2009 at 5:16 pm