That’s the simple message behind Wonder Crew dolls, which Laurel Wider, a psychotherapist based in Northampton, Mass., developed in 2015 after her son came home from preschool and announced that his teacher had told him: “Boys aren’t supposed to cry.”
Ms. Wider said she remembers feeling “floored.”
“I couldn’t imagine how he could get this message,” she said. “I’m a therapist; we talk about feelings all the time at home.”
But she realized that despite her efforts, her son was still being exposed to rigid ideas about gender.
“There was a wave of toys coming out around that time, toys that were encouraging girls to get involved with STEM, changing the way girls see themselves, and I thought to myself, ‘What about boys?’,” she said.
She began to do research. She spoke with more than 150 parents, educators and people in the toy industry to try to answer that question.
“I heard so many stories about boys literally stealing their sisters’ dolls, or playing with dolls in private — there was definitely some shame around it,” Ms. Wider explained. “I wanted to find a way to bridge that gap.”
She came up with Wonder Crew dolls, which she said are “inspired by boys, but truly meant for any child.”
The 15-inch molded dolls, which come in a range of characters and skin tones, are packaged with dress-up gear so that the child and doll can take on the same pretend persona — playing as superheroes, firefighters, astronauts or other adventurous duos.
The “Superhero Will” Wonder Crew doll won Doll of the Year at the New York Toy Fair in February.
But Wonder Crew’s hook of matching accessories allows the child to enter into a special style of play with the doll.
“I basically wound up combining an action figure with a favorite stuffed animal,” Ms. Wider explained.
The Wonder Crew dolls, she said, are meant to be “like a peer, an equal, but also small enough, vulnerable enough, to where a child could also want to take care of him.” She added: “You don’t see kids nurturing their action figures.”
And child development experts say it’s important for a child to have a wide range of play experiences.
“Play is the context in which young children learn,” said Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs for the child development website Zero to Three.
Playing with dolls in particular, Ms. Parlakian said, can help boys develop social and emotional skills, and the “theory of mind” that enables a child to imagine how another person is feeling and thinking.
Giving young children access to dolls helps normalize those skills at a time when children are very sensitive to messages about gender, she added.
She compared Wonder Crew to other, traditionally feminine products that have been repackaged in more masculine guises — like diaper bags marketed to men.
“If that’s what makes people feel more comfortable to partake in this nurturing activity, then maybe that’s what you have to do,” Ms. Wider said. “It’s an experience of inclusion.”
But for Elizabeth Sweet, an assistant professor in sociology at San Jose State University who studies gender-based toy marketing, that experience of inclusion still has inherent limits.
“This sort of incremental introduction to the idea that it’s O.K. for boys to have nurturing play may be a necessary step in the right direction,” Dr. Sweet said. “But that has to be a step on the road, and not the end of it.”
“I would like to see all toys be marketed to children outside of gender,” Dr. Sweet said. “The gender coding of toys has a direct effect on kids, and can reinforce their idea of difference. And I think that contributes to much larger structures of gender inequality.”
That structure is something Ms. Wider agrees should be dismantled.
She notes that in her psychotherapy practice, “I see a lot of rigid ideas of what masculinity is supposed to look like. It leads to depression, aggression, anxiety. It doesn’t help people connect; it doesn’t help people in relationships.”
Ms. Wider said that boys don’t need to be taught how to be nurturing or empathetic, but can benefit from having permission to explore that side of themselves.
“Give them the green light,” Ms. Wider said. “Make it super clear that, yes, this is for you.”
Lauren Spinner, a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Psychology at University of Kent in Britain, said children start to acquire knowledge and understanding of the categories of gender as young as age 1 or 2. By ages 4 to 6, children’s desire to sort things into categories can lead to a rigid view of gender. As they develop further, however, some flexibility returns, Ms. Spinner said.
Ms. Spinner, who has researched how images of play influence children’s perceptions and preferences around gender, sees Wonder Crew dolls as offering a vital alternative to stereotyped narratives.
“It’s really great,” Ms. Spinner said, to “encourage boys to engage with their emotions — other than just anger, which often is the primary way boys express themselves, because they are told crying is for girls.”
Ms. Parlakian noted that children pick up on social cues about gender from a very young age, and that parents and caregivers can show children a nuanced and diverse view of gender roles, rather than a stereotyped one.
“We need to make really intentional choices about what we’re including in their mix of toys and objects,” Ms. Parlakian said. “We can provide that truer story.”
For Ms. Wider, the Wonder Crew dolls are a subtle way to tell that story without alienating children or their parents.
“We’re having to meet kids where they’re at, and provide expansive experiences from there,” Ms. Wider explained.
NY Times May 14, 2018