All children, regardless of gender, can benefit from and find healthy, wholesome pleasure in playing with dolls. Too many people - mainly men - have irrational hang-ups about boys playing with dolls. Essentially children - both boys and girls - are attracted to dolls because they look like human babies. Most dolls have very appealing human faces and it's only natural that children will respond to a cute toy that looks like a baby.
Isn't it just natural for children to love babies - often before they are even out of nappies/diapers themselves? When they play with dolls they are simply playing out their own lives with something that represents a smaller, dependent version of themselves. They are copying the things they experience in their everyday world, where their parents care for them in a whole host of ways. It's simply role-play. We should not tarnish it with our own misinterpretations when the child involved in such role-play just happens to be a boy.
Boys, as much as girls, love to undress dolls - and maybe put the clothes back on again. (Often though they will just carry it around in it's "birthday suit" - maybe by the hair or the leg. Hopefully they are not acting out what they have experienced themselves in such cases.) They love to put the doll in a pram or stroller, tuck bunny rugs around it and take it for a walk. They love to just hold it and rock it. Most dolls these days have soft, cuddly bodies too. What child doesn't want to cuddle a soft toy? They don't discriminate between teddies or soft animal toys and dolls.
I always say that little boys who have sisters are lucky. They are surrounded by girls' toys as well as their own - and can participate in games that involve those toys in a natural way. Most people wouldn't buy a doll for their son - except maybe a boy Cabbage Patch Kid or some other male doll. There was a time when GI Joe dolls were popular. However, I really don't think they can even be classed in the same category as girls' dolls, which have much warmer, friendlier faces, are so much more personable and infinitely more conducive to role-play.
When children play with dolls they are learning social skills and how to care for others who need them. It is helping them to build a foundation for positive, inter-personal relationships and to grasp concepts of healthy family dynamics. In these times we are encouraging men to share parenting responsibilities - and it's becoming more common for men to even take on the role of prime carer while their wives go out to work. So why, pray tell, should little boys not demonstrate such a shift in a major society norm?
Little boys also like to play with tea sets, play kitchens, doll houses and other toys that are traditionally regarded as being for girls. You only have to take a little boy to a playgroup where such things are available to see how magnetically they are drawn to them. They will spend just as much time playing with those things as the girls will - and may even prefer them to more "masculine" toys that they can play with any time at home.
If your little boy has access to a box of dress-up clothes he's just as likely to put on a dress and high-heel shoes too. It doesn't mean your four-year-old is going to be a cross-dresser. He is just having fun and playing a role that's significant in his life. What could be more normal than a little boy wanting to dress up like his mother or grandma, who cares for him all the time? She is the centre of his world after all. If you're going to worry about him playing at being a lady, then maybe you ought to worry too if he plays at being a pirate or a robber.
Children will play with all kinds of toys - and even things that are not designed to be toys, such as boxes and kitchen implements. They don't pigeon-hole things as being exclusively for boys or girls - or even just for kids - the way we do. Everything is for experimenting with. By so doing they learn so much about their world and get a well-rounded general education. As long as they're not playing with anything that could harm them, we should just let them be kids and do the things that kids do. They're far better at it than us. All too often we have become too influenced by other people's dumb views as we have grown up.
Most little boys will naturally grow out of wanting to play with dolls in their own time. If a boy was still playing with dolls when he was around 10 or 11, maybe there would be some reason to wonder if he had some sort of gender identity problem. I heard of a young boy about that age who loved playing with Barbie dolls, etc, while his twin brother was playing with more typical boys' toys. He certainly did have a strong feminine bias.
However, there's nothing wrong with individuality. If a boy still liked to play with dolls occasionally when he was bigger, it wouldn't necessarily suggest he was effeminate , provided he showed considerable signs of developing his masculine identity in other respects. It would be quite normal for your average little boy to be playing with a doll one moment, then with toy cars, marbles, Transformers or dinosaurs the next.
Parents who get uptight about their boys playing with dolls need to loosen up and realize it's just perfectly normal. Let them enjoy their play without imposing any unjustified society views on them. Just relax and make the most of watching them at play. These are some of the best years of their lives - and yours.
One of the reasons we have kids is so that we have a good excuse to do the things we so loved doing when we were kids but ran out of time to do while were children ourselves. So get in and play with your kids and whatever toys they have chosen to play with at the time - dolls, tea sets, Lego, Matchbox cars - whatever. It will do you good too.
Children grow up all too quickly and before you know it, little Johnny will be holding his own real-life baby in his arms. If he's been allowed to play with dolls when he was little, hopefully he will make a jolly good dad - and you'll be just about bursting with pride.