Boys and dolls: Laura Whalen explains why it was important for her to find the right dolls for her sons

I made my first Waldorf doll four years ago. Christmas was approaching and I wanted to give my son a doll. However, finding a suitable one turned out to be difficult, with the mainstream market offering either baby dolls or action figures.

The baby dolls, made of plastic (and some of them frighteningly ugly), are aggressively marketed towards girls. They are found in the ‘pink’ section of toyshops, a place no boy dare enter, and their accessories are mainly pink and floral. Not at all the gender-neutral baby I would have selected for my son.

Action figures are the ‘boy’ alternative to conventional dolls. Also made of plastic, and based primarily on television and film characters, they are made to fight and rescue and conquer, greatly limiting the kind of play possible. Research has shown that when children play with ‘character’ toys from films or programmes, they tend to re-enact scenes and scenarios that they have seen on-screen rather than using their own imaginations to invent stories for their games.

I wanted neither of these things for my son. I was looking for a doll that could be a baby that he could hold and carry, change a nappy on, put to bed, love and generally care for. I also wanted a doll that could be his companion. Someone to tell secrets to and have adventures with. A friend who would help him be brave at the doctor’s and would enjoy climbing trees and not mind having felt-tip pen tattoos drawn on him.

So I made him a Waldorf doll. Waldorf (or Steiner) dolls are made from natural materials. They are beautiful to hold and cuddle. Their sheep’s-wool stuffing retains smell and warmth, making them very familiar and comforting to the child, and they are repairable and washable – essential for messy, rough play!

Their faces are kept very simple, with just eyes, a nose and a little line of a mouth. This is the real secret to the Waldorf doll’s play-ability. The fact that they are made expressionless gives the child a blank canvas onto which to paint the emotion or age their doll needs to be in each particular game. Sometimes babies cry, sometimes friends are scared. The Waldorf doll can be both of these and more.

While I was looking for the right doll for my son, I thought long and hard about the kind of doll I wanted him to have, because I had thought long and hard about why he should have a doll in the first place.

I believe that all children should have access to dolls to play with. Dolls are the oldest and most widely documented of toys. They have appeared in all cultures across the world and throughout time. The importance of doll play is frequently highlighted in parenting and early childhood books and articles. Playing with dolls encourages the development of many skills. For example, self-care, such as brushing hair and teeth, dressing and feeding, is practised during doll play.

Children can explore empathy and a sense of other people’s needs through playing with dolls. The act of caring for a doll, understanding and meeting its needs in a play setting, is the precursor to doing the same for people in real life. Listening to children talk to and about their dolls can serve as a pretty good reflection of ourselves as parents. Hearing our own voices coming from our children can be a little shocking at times, but it can be a valuable tool in assessing how we, as parents, are perceived by our children.

Doll play is also a wonderful tool for children to explore their own sense of self, their place in the world, and how they view themselves. Often children will use dolls to act out their feelings. A doll can become in a sense a ‘mini me’, expressing how they feel in a way that is more communicable than any verbal explanation that they may be able to give. It can also be helpful in learning how children are coping with difficult situations such as the death of a loved one, the separation of the household, or the birth of a sibling.

When I separated from my husband two years ago, one of the ways in which I helped our children understand and come to terms with what was happening was to provide them with a set of little dolls: a father, a mother and three children. I also gave them two simple, wooden-box doll’s houses so that they could re-enact their own family situation. Through their play I watched them process the separation in their own way. It allowed me to hear what aspects of the separation they were unclear about and it gave me the opportunity to watch for warning signs of insecurities and confusion.

While each of these is reason enough for every child to have a doll, I want my sons to have dolls because one day they may be parents. There is no longer a clear division of labour in our society, with the man leaving the house to work and the woman staying at home to care for the household and the children. Today raising children is a shared task. The day-to-day tasks of caring for a family fall to both parents, and it is no longer uncommon to see a daddy pushing a buggy or comforting a crying baby.

I want my sons to have the opportunity to practise the skills they will need in order to do their best as parents. Having a doll they can clothe and feed and carry in a sling, a doll they can comfort and teach things to gives them the chance to do this. It seems to me hugely unfair to expect our boys to become gentle, loving and hands-on parents with absolutely none of the practice girls get from an early age through the encouragement of doll and house play. Society is changing, and the marketing of dolls exclusively to girls needs to change to reflect this.

So my sons have dolls. Dolls that are held and carried and thrown high into trees. Dolls that hold their secrets and keep away bad dreams. Dolls that are their baby, their brother, their friend – and above all are loved.

Laura Whalen lives in a little fishing village in the south of Ireland with her partner and three children: Rebe, aged 9, Benny, aged 6, and Joa, aged 4. She works from home making Waldorf dolls and also runs Waldorf doll-making workshops.

(Accurate at the time this issue went to print).

First published in Issue 38 (Winter 2014) of JUNO:

Buy Issue 38 (paper version) from £3.95

Buy Issue 38 in digital format and access all digital back issues

Subscribe to JUNO (paper version with free digital access to all back issues) – from £14.50

Buy a yearly digital subscription to JUNO – £15.99