Parent-Toddler Play with Feminine Toys: Are All Dolls the Same?^

Parent-Toddler Play with Feminine Toys: Are All Dolls the Same?^

Play with toys provides children with the opportunity to practice behaviors that have relevance to gender role development. By 18 months, toddlers consistently choose to play with sex-appropriate toys. This study was designed to investigate parents’ and toddlers’ initiation of play with baby dolls and a stuffed clown to determine whether boys are provided with the same opportunity for feminine play as girls are when playing with the same type of toys. 42 parent-toddler dyads from Caucasian middle-class families were obsen^ed playing with two baby dolls and a soft stuffed clown for four minutes. Parent toddler play was coded for doll appropriate and inanimate object-type play. The baby dolls and the clown elicited different play behaviors from both the parents and the toddlers. Same-sex dyads engaged in different types of play than opposite-sex parent-toddler dyads. Findings of this study lend evidence that not all dolls are alike. Consequently, parents who provide their toddlers with baby dolls are providing different experiences from parents who provide soft stuffed toys. Implications for gender role development are discussed.

It is widely accepted that children’s play with toys has long-term conse- quences for later development. In particular, differences in toy choices of girls and boys allow children to rehearse behaviors that may contribute to later differences between males and females. Play with feminine toys has been found to foster nurturance, proximity, and role play (e.g., Caldera,

^This research was partially funded by a grant from the General Research Fund of the University of Kansas and by Training Grant 5t32HD07173 from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. This study was submitted by the second author in partial fulfillment of the requirements for an M.A. degree in human development at Texas Tech University. The authors are grateful to the families who participated voluntarily in this project.

^ o whom correspondence and reprint requests should be addressed at Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX 79409.


0360-0025/98/1100-0657$ 15.00A) © 1998 Plenum Publishing Corporation

658 Caldera and Sciaraffa

Huston, & O’Brien, 1989; Liss, 1983); play with masculine toys to lead to higher mobility, activity and manipulative play (e.g., Serbin, & Connor, 1979; Block, 1984; Caldera et al., 1989). Furthermore, play with sex-typed toys contributes to the formation of gender schemas, a network of charac-. teristics and objects associated with gender (Bem, 1981, 1984; Martin & Halverson, 1981), which in turn contribute to sex-typed activities and roles.

Studies have found that by as young as 18 months, girls choose to play with feminine toys and boys choose masculine toys (e.g.. Fagot, 1974; Snow, Jacklin, & Maccoby, 1983; O’Brien & Huston, 1985a,b; Fagot, Leinbach, & Hagan, 1986; Caldera et al., 1989). Current models of sex-typing propose that gender role development is multidimensional and includes social-en- vironmental and cognitive factors (Huston, 1983, 1985; Liben & Signorella, 1987; O’Brien, 1992; Serbin, Powlishta, & Gulko, 1993). The social-envi- ronmental approach emphasizes the role that parents and the play context have in gender role development. There is much supporting evidence for the role of parents in sex-typing. Young children’s rooms are furnished with gender traditional toys and objects (Rheingold & Cook, 1975; O’Brien & Huston, 1985b; Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990); parents Of toddlers choose to play with gender traditional toys with their children (Eis- enberg, Wolchik, Hernandez, & Pastemack, 1985; Idle, Wood, & Pesma- rais, 1993); and parents of toddlers react more positively to children engaged in gender traditional play, and more negatively to children en- gaged in cross-gender activities (Caldera et al., 1989; Eisenberg et al., 1985; Fagot, 1978; Snow et al., 1983; Leaper, Leve, Strasser, & Schwartz, 1995; Leaper & Gleason, 1996). These findings of parental sex-typing have been further supported in a meta-analysis by Lytton and Romney (1991).

The social-environmental approach also emphasizes the play context as an important component of socialization. As mentioned above, feminine and masculine toys foster different types of behaviors in children and par- ents which later are associated with the roles of males and females in our culture (Caldera et al., 1989; Leaper et al., 1995; Leaper & Gleason, 1996; Liss, 1983).

Research on gender schemas and toy play has provided evidence of the cognitive nature of gender role development. Specifically, a series of studies by Fagot and colleagues (Fagot, & Leinbach, 1993; Fagot & Lein- bach, 1995; Fagot, Leinbach & O’Boyle, 1992; Fagot et al., 1986; Hort, Le- inbach & Fagot, 1991; Leinbach & Fagot, 1986) have found that children with more elaborate gender schemas have stronger preferences for sex- typed toys. Similar findings have been reported by Levy and colleagues (Carter & Levy, 1991; Levy, 1989; Levy & Carter, 1989).

Although researchers have investigated the play of parents and chil- dren with gender-traditional and cross-gender toys, no research has been

Doll Play 659

conducted to investigate the specific play behaviors displayed with these toys. The literature on parental socialization of gender roles strongly sup- ports the notion that parents encourage children to play with gender tra- ditional toys, and select toys based on children’s gender, but studies have not investigated what specific messages parents convey, verbally and non- verbally when playing with their children. Nor have studies investigated young children’s specific play behaviors with toys as evidence of developing gender schemas. For example, in the study by Caldera et al. (1989) overall level of involvement of parents and toddlers and proximity of the dyad with sex-typed and cross-gender toys were investigated, but the specific play behaviors displayed by parents and toddlers were not examined. Idle et al. (1993) recorded the toys selected by the parents, the toddlers’ reactions to the toys, and the duration of play with feminine and masculine toys. In neither case was the specific type of activity engaged with the toy coded. Thus, parents could be selecting to play and engage with child cross-sex toys, but display totally different play behaviors than those deemed to be appropriate for the toy. That is, parents may be involved in play with dolls with their sons, but use the doll differently than parents playing with their daughters. Consequently, boys may not be receiving the same message as girls wben playing with feminine toys.

This study was designed to investigate what parents and toddlers in- itially say and do when playing with “dolls.” The reasons for selecting “dolls” were twofold. First, with changing family patterns and roles, men are being required to be more actively engaged in child care (for review see Lamb, 1997). Dolls engender caregiving behaviors; hence it is important to ascertain if parents playing with dolls with their sons are providing the appropriate behavioral repertoire boys will need when they become fathers. Second, studies that investigated the availability of toys in children’s rooms typically collapse a wide variety of toys in the “doll” category making it appear as if boys have dolls (e.g., O’Brien & Huston, 1985a; Pormeleau et al., 1990). Furthermore, stuffed animals and other characters tend to be classified as “dolls” and made available for boys (O’Brien & Huston, 1985b; Rheingold & Cook, 1975), and used in studies as feminine toys (Caldera et al., 1989; O’Brien & Huston, 1985a), yet they would appear to elicit different behaviors than baby dolls. The present study thus included two baby dolls and a soft clown as used in the O’Brien and Huston (1985b) and Caldera et al. (1989) studies to examine if stuffed toys can be func- tionally compared with baby dolls.

The purposes of this study were: To investigate the types of play elic- ited by the baby dolls compared to the clown. To investigate mothers’ and fathers’ verbal and non-verbal initiation play behaviors while playing with “dolls” with their sons and daughters. To investigate toddler girls’ and boys’

660 Caldera and SciaraOa

play initiations with the baby dolls and the clown. It was expected that parent-toddler dyads would initiate more doll appropriate play (caretaking, nurturing, animating) with the baby dolls than with the clown. It was ex- pected that mothers would call attention to the baby dolls and initiate doll appropriate play more when playing with their daughters, while fathers with sons would call attention to the clown and initiate use of the dolls as in- animate objects (naming parts, demonstrating function, tickling). It was fur- ther expected that girls would initiate more appropriate doll play than boys would, while boys were expected to engage in more inanimate object type play.


A total of 42 parent-toddler dyads (11 mothers with daughters, 12 mothers with sons, 9 fathers with daughters and 10 fathers with sons) par- ticipated in this study. The children ranged in age from 18 to 23 months with a mean age of 20 months. The families were Caucasian from middle socio-economic status recruited from birth records maintained at a mid- western university Infant Study Center. A total of 100 families were con- tacted through telephone calls; of these, 64 agreed to participate. Twenty-two dyads were not included in the study due to incomplete ses- sions: equipment failure (8), parents discontinuing play with child cross-sex toys before the play session ended (7), children becoming fussy (2), parents misinterpreting signals to stop playing (2), or various other reasons (3).

Each parent-child dyad was videotaped while playing with a box con- taining one large baby doll that cried, a small baby doll with a bottle, and a soft, stuffed clown. The baby dolls and the bottle were classified as the highly feminine stereotyped toys, while the clown was considered a type of doll more appropriate for boys than baby dolls. The parents were instructed to play with the toys in the box for at least four minutes. These families were involved in a larger project of sex-typing in which parents and children played with masculine, feminine, and neutral toys contained in six different boxes; the “dolls” used in this study were only one type of toy from the six. Toys were presented in a systematic order with the masculine and femi- nine toys always adjacent to each other. There was no order of presentation effect on the play of the dyads.

The parents’ and toddlers’ initial verbal and non-verbal play behaviors were coded for doll appropriate and object play. Appropriate doll play be- haviors were: 1) calling attention to the toy (asking what the toy is; saying “Lookie here”; pointing to the toy); nurturing (hugging, kissing, cuddling); and caretaking (feeding, combing hair, dressing). Object play behaviors

Doll Play 661

were: animating the toy (pretending the toy is talking, walking, waving); naming parts of the toy (naming or asking the partner to name parts of the toys); demonstrating the function of the toy (making doll open and close eyes); and tickling with the toy (using the toy to tickle or scare the partner). Each behavior category was coded for whom, either the parent or the toddler, suggested or initiated play within that category. That is, only initiations and suggestions concerning the play categories were coded, not behaviors which continued that type of play.̂

It was believed that initiations would provide information on what each member of the dyad spontaneously thought was appropriate play with the toys and hence a better index of their sex-typed perceptions (see Caldera et al., 1989).

All sessions were coded by the second author. Reliability was coded on 25% of the sessions by a second coder unaware of the purposes of the study. One pass was done to code parent initiations/suggestions, and then a second pass was done to code child initiations/suggestions. Reliability was calculated by dividing the number of agreements by the number of agree- ments plus disagreements. Reliability ranged from 63% to 100%. Reliability was lower for infrequent categories.

Frequencies of each of the initial play behaviors were transformed into proportions (hence the low values) of play for each category of behaviors exhibited by mothers and fathers, girls and boys, with the doll and the clown (see Table 1). A preliminary correlation analysis was conducted among the seven play behaviors of parents and toddlers to examine colinearity. Few significant correlations were found (parent behaviors ranged from r = -.15 to .40, only two significant; child behaviors ranged from r = -.22 to .53, only four significant). Therefore, the variables were submitted to univariate analyses.

The data analyses consisted of a series of 2 (parent gender) by 2 (child gender) analysis of variance (ANOVA) with toys (dolls and clown) as the within subject variable, on each of the seven parent and seven child play behaviors. It is acknowledged that the number of analyses increases the familywise error, however, caution will be taken to emphasize patterns of effects. Results are presented for parents followed by play behaviors of tod- dlers. Only significant findings will be reported for each of the play behav- iors.

toddlers’ and parents’ responses to their partners initiations/suggestions were coded for acceptance or rejection. Girls accepted more initiations/suggestions from fathers and boys from mothers. Because the toddlers did not initiate/suggested many play behaviors, the rates of acceptance and rejection from parents were very low. For any of the variables, there were either no differences in parents’ rate of acceptance or rejection or the analyses could not be conducted because of empty cells.

662 Caldera and Sciarafia




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Doll Play 663


Parent Initiations

There was a significant parent gender x child gender x toy interaction in the proportion of nurturing behaviors initiated by parents, F(l,38) = 3.75, p < .05. See Fig. 1. Mothers with daughters (M = .163) and fathers with sons (M = .141) engaged in more nurturing behaviors with the dolls; moth- ers and fathers with sons (M = .009 and M = .009, respectively) initiated the fewest nurturing behaviors with the clown. In addition, there was a sig- nificant main effect of toy, F(l,38) = 52.41, p < .001. Parents initiated more nurturing behaviors with the doll (M = .127) than with the clown (M = .015). There was a significant child gender x toy interaction in the pro- portion of calling attention behaviors of the parents F(l,38) = 5.67, p < .05. Parents of girls called more attention to the baby dolls (M = .119), while parents of boys called more attention to the clown (M = .136). There was a significant parent gender x toy interaction in caretaking behaviors, F(l,38) = 3.77, p < .05. Mothers initiated more caretaking behaviors with the dolls (M = .282) than fathers (M = .184); fathers initiated more care- taking behaviors with the clown (M = .043) than mothers (M = .021). There was also a main effect of toy, F(l,38) = 42.33, p < .001. Parents initiated more caretaking behaviors with the doll (M = .239) than with the clown




> Mom-boy

> Dad-boy

Doll Clown


Fig. 1. Proportion of nurturing behaviors initiated by parents with both dolls and clowns in play with their children.

664 Caldera and Sciaraffa

(M = .029). There was a significant parent gender main effect in the pro- portion of animating the toy initiations by the parents, F(l,38) = 3.48, p < .05. Fathers initiated animating the toys (M = .146) more than mothers (M = .062). There was a significant parent gender main effect in the par- ents’ tickling the child with the toys, F(l,38) = 6.68, p < .05. Fathers (M = .116) initiated tickling with the toys more than mothers (M = .011). There was a significant main effect of toy in the parents’ initiations to dem- onstrate the function of the toys, F(l,38) = 48.18,/? < .001. The dolls elicited more demonstration of function (M = .145) than the clown (M = .000). There were no significant main effects or interactions in the parents’ in- itiations to name parts of the toys. No other main effects or interactions were significant.

Child Initiations

There were significant main effects of toy in the child initiations of caretaking behaviors, F(l,33) = 16.21,/? < .001, and in the toddlers’ initia- tions to name the parts of the toys, F(l,33) = 9.93, p < .01. Dolls elicited more caretaking (M = .196) than the clown (M = .009) and more part naming (M = .253) than the clown (M = .079). There was a significant parent gender main effect in the toddlers’ animating behaviors, F(l,33) = 5.24, p < .05. Toddlers initiated more animating behaviors with fathers (M = .130) than with mothers (M = .015). There were no significant main effects or interactions in the proportion of calling attention, nurturing or demonstrating the function initiations by the toddlers. Also, toddlers did not exhibit any tickling with the toy behaviors, thus, analyses could not be con- ducted on this variable.


The main purpose of this study was to investigate specific play behav- iors initiated by parents and toddlers when playing with baby dolls and a stuffed clown as indices of gender role socialization by parents and pres- ence of gender schemata in toddlers. To this end, parents’ and toddlers’ spontaneous initiations of play with the toys were coded for seven behaviors indicating appropriate doll play or inanimate object play. First, dolls were expected to elicit higher rates of doll appropriate play, while the clown was expected to elicit more inanimate object-type play. It was also expected that mothers with daughters would initiate higher rates of doll appropriate play with the dolls, while fathers with sons would initiate more inanimate

Doll Play 665

object-type play with dolls and the clown. Finally, it was expected that girls would initiate more appropriate doll play than boys, hence demonstrating a more elaborate schema for dolls than boys would. Results generally sup- ported these hypotheses.

As expected, parents and toddlers initiated different play behaviors with the baby dolls and the clown. First, parents with daughters called at- tention to the dolls at higher rates than to the clown; parents with sons called attention to the clown at higher rates than to the dolls. At the start, then, parents were selecting the toy that was more ‘appropriate’ for their child’s gender. In addition, both parents and toddlers initiated more doll- appropriate play with the dolls than with the clown. Mothers and fathers indicated to their toddlers that baby dolls are for caring and nurturing, while clowns are not. Both girls and boys initiated caretaking play with dolls more than with the clown. In fact, there were very few instances of caretaking with the clown. In addition, unlike what was expected, girls and boys engaged in higher rates of naming parts of the dolls than the clown. This may be, however, an artifact of the toys used in this study (dolls had more parts than the clown did). Providing boys with soft stuffed toys, thus, is not enough to encourage the nurturing and caretaking behaviors they will need when they become fathers, or the language experience elicited by baby dolls. These findings are in line with previous findings of the role of parents and toys in gender role socialization (Liss, 1983; Caldera et al., 1989; Leaper et al., 1995; Leaper & Gleason, 1996) and lend support to the social-ecological model of sex-typing.

A second purpose of this study was to investigate mothers’ and fathers’ differences in their play with the baby dolls and clown while with their sons or daughters to further our understanding of the manner in which girls and boys are socialized differently by their parents. It was expected that mothers with daughters would initiate more doll appropriate play with the dolls, while fathers with sons would initiate more inanimate object-type play with dolls and the clown. As expected, mothers with daughters initiated more nurturing and caretaking of the baby dolls than mothers with sons. However, fathers with sons also initiated higher rates of nurturing and care- taking with the baby dolls than with the clown. This finding was unexpected and suggests that fathers can be important socializing agents for their sons, especially when it comes to feminine play. These fathers were insuring their sons nurtured and cared more for the baby dolls than the clown and more so than with their daughters. Perhaps fathers were expecting their daughters to already have the play repertoire with dolls, even though the girls in this study did not initiate more nurturing or caretaking than boys. These find- ings provide additional support to the role of parents in gender role so- cialization (Lytton & Romney, 1991). This study, however, goes one step

666 Caldera and Sciarafia

further by demonstrating that even though parents “engage” with child- cross-sex toys, they initially model different play behaviors than when en- gaged with child-sex-appropriate toys.

Mothers and fathers also differed in their play styles with the toys. Fathers initiated more animating and tickling with the toys than mothers did. Thus, they animated the clown as much as the doll, and used both toys as inanimate objects to tickle their toddlers. Fathers thus displayed a different style of playing with dolls than mothers. Instead of appropriate doll play which fosters nurturance and caretaking, fathers were demonstrat- ing a more “playful” yet detached from the toy play style with the dolls. The role that fathers played in this context parallel findings of father as the “playmate” parent and mother as the “caregiver” parent (Lamb, 1997).

Finally, this study investigated whether girls would initiate more doll appropriate play with the baby dolls than boys, thus demonstrating to have a more elaborate gender schema than boys. This hypothesis was not fully supported. Girls did not initiate more nurturing or caretaking with the baby dolls than boys did, which suggests that both girls and boys have the ap- propriate play repertoire with baby dolls. Girls, however, animated the baby dolls more than boys did indicating that girls considered the baby dolls to be more ‘real’ than the boys did. This finding could be due to the girls’ greater experience with baby dolls and thus greater opportunity for pretend play.

Toddlers also differed in their initiations of play when with mothers or fathers. Toddlers initiated more animating behaviors with fathers than with mothers. This finding paralleled parents’ initiations, fathers initiated more animating play than mothers did. It is not possible to state in this study whether the toddlers were responding to fathers’ initiations, or if fa- thers were responding to their toddlers play. Girls, however, animated the dolls more and boys the clown. The toddlers, thus, were differentially ani- mating the toys, and doing it more with fathers than with mothers. These results parallel findings from Leaper and Gleason (1996) where girls and boys behaved differently towards mothers and fathers.


The findings of the study suggest that providing soft toys to boys is not the same as providing sons with baby dolls. These toys, as demonstrated above, elicit different types of play behaviors in both mothers and fathers and girls and boys. Thus, parents who provide their children, especially sons, with soft stuffed toys rather than traditional baby dolls are not en- couraging traditional feminine sex-typed play and their children may not

Doll Play 667

be learning the activities associated with the feminine role. These findings go beyond previous research which reports only global indices of play to provide a more specific understanding of the role parents and toys play in gender role and schema development within a multidimensional model of sex-typing.


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