What does it mean to be a man? Seeking an answer to this question has been the source of numerous conversations, sleepless nights and a lot of shame in my life. It’s such an odd question because its opposite, “What does it mean to be a woman?” is almost never asked. Women, of course, have their own question posed to them, “How do they find the time, strength and energy to fulfill all that it means to be a woman?” Perhaps, the solutions to both of these questions is rooted in a fact of our culture: men have been separated from their babies.
It starts from the earliest days when boys are given their first toys. A boy rarely receive anything human like to play with – cars, animals, building blocks, sports equipment and guns are his main staples. He plays with fire trucks and police cars, but not the people who drive them. If he’s given anything human, it’s usually a man whose main function is to inflict harm on other humans – wrestlers, soldiers or superheroes. Otherwise, they are accessories to the main toy – vehicle drivers, construction workers or traffic controllers.
The cliche story of a man who would rather work on his car or watch sports than be with his family should not surprise us. Likewise, the general disregard for the feelings of others, especially women, from boys and men have their root in the way boys are taught to play. Many of the parenting skills needed today – changing diapers, bottle feedings, changing clothes etc. – are not natural; they are all learned. Most women have been practicing these skills for years, but for men, the first time we put a shirt on our baby is the first time we have done anything like that. From the get go, there is a gap in skill between men and women that gives the illusion that raising children in “women’s work;” that it’s natural for women. Men, on the other hand, have no access to anything natural except maybe fighting.
The sad part for many men is they spend their entire lives searching for a purpose and an identity in every place except in raising their children. To be clear not every man or woman’s purpose is to raise children, but there is a unique way men relate to their kids that brings fulfillment and joy found nowhere else. In a queer way, giving dolls to boys was taboo in many circles in the past, but even now when it’s cool to be gay, it is much more likely to see a girl with a doll than a boy. The point isn’t so much about making boys play with baby dolls, although why wouldn’t we want our boys to practice being fathers? The point is to bring toys with human likeness back into the center of their play time. The easiest way to do this is to give our sons dolls.