Camilla was drawing a doll she was planning to get with her parents over the weekend. She was talking to herself in sing-song tones as she drew the doll, some of her clothes and her own house.
Across the table sat Tommy; he heard Camilla talking about the doll she was about to get. He exclaimed, almost as joyfully, “Hey! I’m going to get a doll too!” The two began to chat about the types of dolls they were going to get.
Across the room, another boy, busily building with blocks, said in a voice that reached across the room, “You are getting a doll?” A look of confusion spread across his face.
A teachable moment if there ever was one, the teacher nearby immediately interjected, asking several children in the area, “Wait a minute. Are there things just for boys and things just for girls?”
Some students offered an unsure yes. Others mumbled, no. She repeated the question, “Are there boy toys and girl toys?”
There were many more no’s this time, but the issue needed further clarification. It was addressed 30 minutes later during our morning meeting. After briefly talking about the different things girls and boys can play with, from dolls to trucks, she read Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll.
It’s a tender story about a young boy who, above anything else, wants a doll to wash and clean and dress a feed, to put to bed at night, and to love. He doesn’t want just any doll; he wants a girl doll with a little white dress and blond hair and eyes that shut with a clack when you lay her down.
Upon hearing this, William’s brother and a friend make fun of him. They call him a sissy and a creep. His father buys him a basketball and a train set instead. William ends up playing and liking both of these things.
When William’s grandmother learns that all he really wants is a doll, she takes him to get one. And she tells William’s father that he needs it “so that when he’s a father like you, he’ll know how to take care of his baby and feed him and love him and bring him the things he wants, like a doll so that he can practice being a father.”
This is really the take-away message of the book: both girls and boys need dolls so they can practice being mommies and daddies. In fact, the author wrote the book in response to the child-rearing practices when she was a parent: Fathers had a very hands-off approach to the day-to-day routines.
While not every boy will want a doll after reading the story, that’s not the point. The point is to offer an alternative. Boys need not only play basketball and have trains as toys. Girls need not only play house or have dolls as toys.
By the end of the story, every child understood the message. The boy whose initial question had prompted the discussion even said, “Hey, I play basketball, and sometimes I play with my sister’s doll when we play together.”
I’m sure this message will need repeating (as we have seen in the past here and here), as years of socialization can’t be undone with one story and one conversation. But if every teacher is responsive and aware of every child’s needs, this message will be reinforced over and over again. And maybe one day, instead of having to reinforce this message, we will be able to just celebrate it.
Palenski is a kindergarten teacher in Connecticut.