Let’s Play Dolls

When my daughters were growing up, my husband and I made a deliberate child-rearing decision about the kinds of dolls we wanted in our home. Now you may think this is a pretty funny thing to write a post about. But I actually think it is very important.

As far as I can tell, there are three genres of dolls (not including the kind you collect to just sit on the shelf): the baby doll, the little girl doll, and the grown-up doll, which unfortunately is usually the hoochy-mama doll.

Now there is something very important we need to realize about how children play. A little girl playing with a baby doll is pretending to be the doll’s mother. She will change the baby, rock the baby, etc. She is imitating her own mother and learning the art of mothering without really knowing it.

A little-girl doll (something like the American Girl dolls) is a playmate, and the play can go in many directions: dressing her up, setting up and playing house, having tea parties, etc. In this case, a young girl may be imitating her mother, or a big sister, or a friend. When my mother was growing up as an only child, she had a beautiful Patsy Ann doll (now a very collectible antique). Patsy Ann  was a great playmate for my mom. Every Christmas her mother had the tailor make Patsy Ann a new outfit, and she would be standing under the tree in her new dress on Christmas morning. She was a well-loved doll.

When girls play with a grown-up doll, they are pretending to be the doll. This isn’t necessarily bad unless it is one of those hoochy-mama dolls (and I have to include Barbie in this category). Then it becomes another kind of play all together. When she is pretending to be Barbie, she is the one with the stacked figure, the immodest clothing, the hot car, the super-model hair and makeup. And if you introduce Ken into the picture, the opportunities for inappropriate play increase. What kinds of things can we play with Barbie and Ken? They are not brother and sister, you know.

You can see the same thing when little boys are playing  with action figures. They aren’t pretending to be the action figure’s friend or dad (that would be weird!); they are pretending to BE the action figure.

Pretending to be the doll is not necessarily bad. The problem with the hoochy-mama doll is her skankiness, and the problem with some of the action figures is their rambo-ness (if that’s a word). But there’s a big difference between a little girl pretending to be a great lady, and pretending to be slutty.

So your daughter’s play with dolls will either be the kind where she is mothering, playing with a peer, or pretending to be the doll herself. Since mothers want to be instilling a godly femininity in their daughters, they ought to take stock in the kind of dolls their daughters have to play with. Are they the right sort? And any kind of play, whether doll-playing or swinging in the back yard, is going to still require oversight. (I’m sure little girls can sin with any kind of doll.)

Wise moms will have one ear tuned in to the kind of play that is going on, so they can steer, correct, teach, and monitor. This is what I call Snoopervising. But that’s another subject.

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26 thoughts on “Let’s Play Dolls

  1. (reading while at home with sick kids…) I am SO glad to see this post!!! Many people I’ve talked to think we’re crazy for deciding that there will be no Barbies (or those new Bratz!) in our home. This is the exact thing we’ve talked about, though. What a refreshing –and funny– post! (How often do I get to read you using words such as “hoochy-mama” and “skankiness”!!!)

    Regarding types of inappropriate play, well, I think these types of dolls scream for parents to consider lust in thier daughters. As I’ve heard in one of your husbands sermons or books or somewhere(!), men may lust after women, but women lust by desiring to be lusted after. (I’m sure he said it far better than I just did!) When little girls are given dolls with “stacked figures” and expected to pretend they are the doll, and Ken is thrown into the picture, is it much different than handing your son a sleazy magazine? Who would do that?!

  2. Thanks for your advice on this subject. I heard your “no Barbie” policy some years ago and decided to mimic it in our home with good results. The girls give an occasional wistful look to the Barbie section in the store, but even my eight-year old can tell that Bratz are in bad taste.

    A few questions, comments. The girls seem to really enjoy dressing their dolls (like Polly Pockets) which I guess is vicariously dressing themselves. Any thoughts on this? I know I really enoyed dressing my dolls too and it seems a logical extension of a lady-in-training’s desire to beautifying herself and her surroundings. The challenge is in being vigilant to monitor the dress up stuff for “skankiness”.

    Also, boys and girls seem to play quite differently with dolls (although there is some overlap in this). Girls seem more interested in role playing. Boys, however, enjoy using their dolls as props in their staging of adventure stories and battles (thus the boys’ fascination with destroying their dolls). If the boys identify with their dolls, would it be the one who wins? Sometimes, as far as I can tell, nobody wins in their Armageddon re-enactments.

    Thanks again for sharing on their subject.

  3. We have a “no Barbies” policy in our house too, for the reasons you’ve mentioned. I’ve always felt badly, though, knowing that my daughter would love to change her outfits and do innocent things with Barbie dolls. So, I was totally excited this year when I found Only Hearts dolls at Target. See: http://www.target.com/Only-Hearts-Club-Princess-Karina/dp/B000FPGXGA/qid=1203901122/ref=br_1_1/602-5514292-0165400?ie=UTF8&node=16300361&frombrowse=1&rh=&page=1

    These dolls are about the same size as Barbie but have soft, flat, undefined bodies underneath the clothes. They have sweet faces and modest clothes. I’m hoping these will catch on and stay around, because I think they’re a great alternative.

  4. As I watch my 2 year old play with her baby doll, I’ve already begun to wonder. I know it’s perfectly healthy for her now, but what happens when she turns 6 or 7ish? Should I hope she just outgrows the doll phase before we get to the big girl dolls?

    As a little girl and adolescent, I certainly did not. My mother wisely nixed Barbie long before I reached an age where I wanted to play with “woman” dolls. I was allowed to play with lots of paper dolls, though. Dress them up. Play life. I’m wondering if that has contributed at all to my own discontent with as an adult, though. Even paper dolls have extensive wardrobes and ridiculously tiny waists! I’m not really sure what a good alternative is. Should I not allow her to play with womanly dolls at all and just I give her other play things? What do you suggest?

  5. I love that…Snoopervising. I am not a mom yet, but I teach kindergarten at an ACCS member school and I do that with my students; listen in on their conversations and monitor, teach and correct from there.

    While not a mom yet, I love reading about things like this. It gets my wheels turning for the future.

  6. I am also thankful to hear we’re not the only ones with a “no Barbie!” policy! My sister and I played with Barbie and Ken for years, and even as an unbeliever I knew they had warped our sensibilities (and behavior!) on all kinds of levels. How much more did I realize this when I became a Christian.

    Of course, I know Christian families who have allowed their daughters to play with Barbies, and their daughters did not turn out to be hoochie-mamas. However, I have never known a girl who played with them who wasn’t poorly affected either.

    And while we’re on the subject of role playing, I have a question as well. When our daughters play church we find ourselves in the slightly uncomfortable position of allowing one of them to be the elder, since they have no brothers. A few times we have suggested that they pretend to be listening to a real elder or deacon, but they get extremely bored sitting and listening to a lot of nothing (since the majority of the worship service is lead by men). And frankly, we really do not want to discourage worship play. So we have chosen to allow our eldest to play the elder, since she is capable of understanding why women do not lead in church in real life. We also check her understanding and attitude constantly. Any suggestions about this?

  7. My sisters and I never had Barbies and neither do my girls. They did have baby dolls, and do have the “put on a shelf and collect” dolls. They went from baby dolls to toy horses, and from there to the real thing. It was nice not to even have to consider the other types of dolls.

  8. Teddy bears are the best. They are much more comfortable than dolls when you’re pretending to be pregnant. And, if you wear the right shirt, they don’t fall out when running over to the piano bench for the birthing!

  9. I only ever had one doll as a child and she is still as good and new. I much prefered to play with my cats. I’d put them in my doll’s pram and give them bottles of warm milk that they held between their paws. Then I would sit them on cushions in front of my blackboard and teach them. I’ve always thought they were wonderful preparation for my real sons, who have never proved to be quite as ‘controllable’ as a doll. Dolls, teddy bears or cats?

  10. This is a funny story of how the “dolls” question was solved once and for all at our house.
    We started out with a “no-Barbie” policy, but years ago we were given a huge box of hand-me-down Barbies by a well meaning neighbor.
    My conviction was wavering a tiny bit when I saw my two little girls gleefully tearing through the box.
    I thought I would remove the kids from the situation for a minute while I thought out a plan, and we went out to play.
    Well, it happened that we had a brand new puppy at the time, and the puppy needed to chew.
    So, while we were outside and we thought puppy was napping, he actually woke up and ate all the legs off all the Barbies.
    The pieces went into the trash right away.
    It was such a quick solution to that little problem. My sons tell this story as evidence of our dog’s superior intellingence.

  11. A few years ago, when I was still in high school, I wrote an essay on why I would not allow my (future) daughters to play with Barbies. I do not believe that Barbies are inherently evil, but they indirectly represent a view of warped womanhood that I do not want my daughters to believe. I want them to see, even at such a young age, that there is no beauty in such play. Instead, I hope to foster in them a love and desire for true, Biblical womanhood by giving them baby dolls so that they can play “mommy” instead of “hoochy-mama”.

  12. Great Article! We have kept these kinds of dolls out of our home for our boys sake as much as our girls. We have two boys, one of which has found the female figure beautiful at the young age of four. I do believe that the rule forbidding barbies (and the like) in the home, is one of those issues that should have a reason behind it’s limitation. (Hence why I love what Nancy wrote,)but to stretch it a little further; my son finds those “immodest dolls” facinating. We have friends who have some and I have seen my young son gaze at them with an obvious wonder and embbaracement. We have had to teach him why these “ladies” are not Gods “standard” of beauty.
    Nancy, I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue of dealing with our boys and immodest dolls.

  13. I see your reasoning behind this post; however, as a young girl I never played inappropriately with my Barbie dolls. That thought never even entered my mind. My daughter does have Barbie dolls, and we don’t have any of the tacky clothes. She doesn’t even play with Ken (he is stuck in a box somewhere out of the way). She plays with her dolls as mothers, sisters, and friends. So I tend to think little girls will play with their dolls in a manner that coincides with their environment. Without the tacky ideas put into their heads, they most likely aren’t going to even think of it.

  14. when i was a girl i was not allowed to play with barbies or any of her ilk… i was a deprived child. as i grew up i could see the skank factor involved more clearly and could understand where my parents were coming from. however it was hard for me to say “no” when my girls got to the barbie age. funny thing… they never asked for them. they were given one or two as gifts, but showed no interest.

    they say these things can skip a generation…. wisdom, i mean;-)

  15. A few thoughts on playing ‘church’ (Re: Megan Lindsay’s comment)
    My sisters and I DO have a brother, and he would ‘graciously’ lead our playtime church services…He was especially good at TAKING the offering and TAKING communion! Lots of frustration back then, but good laughs now!

  16. I absolutely agree with your thoughts here and appreciate this post. I was raised with a no-barbie policy and intend to use it in my own home someday. It’s great to see an article on it. Thank you!

  17. When I was little, someone gave me a bunch of Barbies. My parents decided to trade me- one Barbie equaled one baby doll of my choice! I didn’t play with the Barbies much anyway, but after that I kept all the remaining Barbies safely stashed away… they were far too valuable as currency!
    I plan on raising my daughters similarly… with a strong emphasis on mommy-play, and babies!

  18. Nancy, could you speak about dealing with this at other people’s homes, especially relatives’ homes, that have Barbies? My daughters (4 and 2) want to play with these when they are at their cousins’ home (and there are a lot of the Barbies or princess dolls and Ken). I’m not sure if I speak to the parent about it (we’re already pretty vocal about the t.v. thing-b/c a lot is not appropriate for our children to watch), or my daughter about choosing not to play with it or keeping an eye on it without making it a big deal (we don’t have them there a lot, and we don’t have these dolls in our home).

  19. Just another comment to add to the discussion. I and my sister each had several Barbie dolls growing up, and I owned the only Ken doll. I’m sure my parents had many long discussions about them (my mom wasn’t allowed to have them growing up, and had one of the flat-busted flat-footed alternatives).
    Looking back, I think they managed to do a pretty good job with us; the clothes our Barbies had were more of the long elegant evening gown kind, and we had a big house for them that we decorated ourselves. We learned to sew by making blankets and pillows out of scrap satin and velvet, and made little chests of drawers from old matchboxes covered in shelf-paper, and generally had much more fun doing the decorating and set-up than actually enacting any stories. I did have one Ken doll, but since the only clothes he owned were a slouchy sweater set he never really got played with.
    I also distinctly remember my mom emphasizing to us that no woman could ever look like Barbie, because her insides would have no place to go; it was just a physical impossibility.
    This isn’t to say that I think Barbies are a good idea generally (after all, people survive plane crashes and we still don’t make a habit of crashing planes), but at least it’s an example of how one pair of sisters managed to make it through without (as far as I can tell) any negative effects.

  20. Melissa’s comments spark a question in my mind about where doll house dolls — typically a family set — fit in the Wilsonian doll paradigm. More positively, I’m assuming, but thoughts on that would make a nice addition to the entry.

    My particularly bad memories of Barbie had to do with envy. I’m betting that has something to do with “being” the doll, and knowing that my doll wasn’t as nice as my friends’, and didn’t have as many nice clothes and other accessories. And I think I only had one, not several as was common. Not that there’s never rivalry over baby or little girl dolls, but the Barbie envy was closer to the grown-up versions of the same sins of dissatisfaction and catty discontentedness.

  21. I never played with dolls, I had my model horses. I suppose it prepared me for motherhood in some form or fashion. Somebody earlier noted that Barbie’s figure is unobtainable for real women. I think though that corsets did a better job than Barbie shape. If you have to displace your organs to make men like your figure then you should innately know that it’s not in your best interest.

  22. OK…I’ll be honest. My barbies made out with ken every chance they got…in the hot tub(that actually produced it’s own bubble action), in the car(that played the latest 80’s pop), on the pink blow-up sofa. My barbies were sluts for sure. Poor Ken couldn’t keep up with them and enlisted a friend of his from college, named Cory for double dates. 🙂
    Ironically, I was quite the opposite. Didn’t date at all.
    I must admit that when I married my dh, I thought it would be much like the barbie fairy tale ending…prince charming kisses barbie princess and they live happily ever after. After all, my barbie never did house work, stay up all night with crying babies, or disagree with Ken…she was too busy getting her hair done(cut!) and shopping for new clothes!
    So the biggest problem I have with barbies is not the boobs, but the world view….me, I’m pretty, I’m sexy, people like me! I recently heard a popular TV evangelist with this same barbie world view, he must have had a Ken.
    🙂

  23. While I respect and appreciate many comments about problems associated with dolls, Barbie in particuar, I am concerned about having a “no Barbie policy” becoming a legalistic standard. Is someone in sin who lets their children play with Barbie? Maybe, maybe not. Aside from the “stackedness” of Barbie (not a sin in itself…some women do suffer from this unpietistic ailment), the greater concern is the clothes and cultural assumptions that often go along with Barbie (Ken, the fast car, the slutty clothes/ Hollywoodness). Could not many of these problems be overcome with instruction, additional snoopiness on the part of parents, and restrictions on clothes/accessories (like my mother, who bought clothes for my sister’s dolls from a lady who made modest Barbie clothes)? No, Barbie is a sin, is a sin, is a sin. I certainly wouldn’t let my daughters go near them! Well, as for me and my house, we have allowed Barbie, but with restrictions, in the same way we have allowed limited TV and movies. I respect brothers and sisters that follow a “no TV” rule, but I don’t condemn those that don’t either.

  24. Isaac, please note that the first sentence of Mrs. Wilson’s post does not read, “When my daughters were growing up, my husband and I made a deliberate decision to be busybodies about the kinds of dolls everybody should be allowed to have in their home if they didn’t want to suffer eternal damnation.” Parents can (and the Wilsons did) set standards for their own families without pretending to set up those standards as inviolable rules for everybody else. In fact, conscientious parents must do this sort of thing, as the only other alternative is a “do whatever you see your friends doing” approach that fails to meet the biblical standard of “bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4)

    Since someone like Mrs. Wilson who has successfully raised her own kids is directed by Scripture to “instruct the younger women how to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:4-5), using her blog to share her family’s standards and the reasoning behind them is really a rather helpful thing to do. She’s seeking to bless, not to condemn anyone…and doing a consistently good job at it, if you ask me! 😉

  25. I agree with your post except for one thing: your statement that little girls can sin with any type of doll. Seriously?? Little girls, especially the ones little enough to be playing with baby dolls, are most likely innocent and before the age of reasoning. They don’t sin. They might imitate adult behaviors, in which case the sin belongs wholly to the adult who exposed the child to these actions. But little children are born in innocence. Not until they get to the point where they are able to comprehend their choices, to understand God’s will, to think and reason and deliberately disobey God’s Word with a mindful and willful decision, do they sin. Come on.

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