Betty's four-year-old son enjoys playing with dolls. His father is terrified that this will 'make him gay' and wants them to be chucked out. What should Betty do?
However hard people try to make toys unisex, they seem firmly fixed in their sexual boxes. Heaven knows, toy manufacturers, with their eyes on the sales, would be the first to market anything that hit the spot, as one can see by their production of endless little androgynous plastic figures featuring in everything from plastic garages to luxury homes, but basically the only unisex toys remain post offices, farms and cuddly animals. Even Lego is played with more by boys than girls - although perhaps more girls play with Lego than would have dreamed of playing with Meccano - and in doctors' and nurses' uniform sets, I can't imagine boys donning the nurse's uniforms or the girl the doctor's, however many female doctors and male nurses there might be today. It's still girls who put on the pretty uniforms and boys who announce: "Hello, I am the doctor, here to examine you. Please lift up your skirt."

Boys tend to play with guns rather than dolls, and I can understand Betty's husband finding something unusual about his son. His behaviour is slightly unusual. But gay? Or worrying? No. Playing with dolls no more prefigures gayness than playing with guns prefigures long stretches in Pentonville. And boys play more often with dolls than we might think. True, they often play with dolls for short periods. But play with them they do, sometimes, even if in rather different ways from girls. "If parents are worried that doll play may feminise a boy, all they need for reassurance is to watch how boys play with dolls, because it is very different from the way girls play with them ... [A boy's] approach is quite distinctly masculine, typically much more aggressive and manipulative than that of girls," wrote the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Indeed, he bemoaned the fact that boys weren't given more opportunity to play with dolls so they could "work out problems of sibling rivalry and family constellation in a conveniently symbolic way".

My son certainly played with cuddly toys, and had endless doll play with a huge stuffed monkey and an elephant. (I also remember him, now I come to think of it, smothered with my lipstick, with his friend, similarly smothered and wearing one of my nighties, in my bed together roaring with indecent laughter.)

Quite apart from anything else, to take away his dolls would not make a blind bit of difference to Betty's son's sexual preferences. If he is going to be gay he is going to be, and his parents can no more prevent it than they could stop grass forcing its way up through the melting Tarmac; all throwing his dolls away might do is to make him resentful and miserable. He would be more likely to grow up twisted - even, perhaps, trapped in some naive stage of his emotional development - than if he were allowed to play out his feelings at this time in his life. How would his father like it if his four-year-old son decided that his dad was too dependent on, say, his mobile phone or his fax machine and, with a gang of four- year-olds, binned them when he was out all day? Hopping mad, baffled and miserable.

Any normal parents would anyway delight in any activity that made their son happy and did no one any harm, from an obsessive interest in the construction of cardboard boxes or elaborate fantasies about imaginary friends.

"Children's play should be regarded as their most serious actions," wrote the 16th-century essayist Montaigne. Dolls are important to Betty's son. Betty and her husband needn't inundate him with more. But they need to accept his doll-playing as another fulfilling stage in his life.

READERS' REPLIES

The child is lonely and needs attention

Betty and her husband should stop writing letters and discussing their son's predilection for dolls, and start taking an interest in him. This child could be going through a harmless phase but it sounds as if he is showing all the classic signs of loneliness and making up his own fantasy life to compensate for his parents' indifference. They are probably so busy that they have forgotten the child, as happened to me. For heaven's sake, Betty can't even bring herself to mention the boy's name!

Both father and mother should turn the television off and close their briefcases, or whatever, to spend time with the son. And this means personal commitment, especially from macho Dad who can't even talk to the boy direct but leaves his bringing-up to Mum.

Give him outings; take him to the pictures, or to the park to feed the ducks. And it is Dad that must do this. I suspect Dad has forgotten that he played a part in bringing the boy into the world and has to play his part in bringing him up. If outings do not do the trick, get him designing clothes. Who knows, you might have the next fashion master on your hands.

Julian P Jellie

London SE24

He may need psychiatric help

There are two ways to handle this problem. One, do as your partner asks by adeptly abducting the female dolls and replacing them with Action Men. If your son persists in playing the cissy with dolls, then your partner might be justified in taking his son off to a child psychoanalyst. It may be that your son has an Oedipal fixation constellated around femininity due to a distant father, thus preventing masculine identification, which will later manifest as homosexuality!

Or secondly, you may consider presenting your partner with the following scenario and question. If in the future your son as a young man were to come home one day and tell his father of his passionate love for another man would your partner be the kind of parent who would lovingly accept his child for who he is?

The problem is not about your son playing with dolls but rather the conditional nature of your partner's love for his son.

Dorothee Ozred

Sunderland

Teach him to behave like a proper boy

If it is any comfort to that poor worried daddy can I assure him that my son (now six), who wore dresses to parties at four, has learnt at nursery and school that other silly people say things, and behaving like a 'proper boy' makes for a quiet life. He picked up on what's 'girlie' without being the victim of teasing - it's in the air!

He has decided that he will keep his rose-painted treasure chest of jewels to himself and his real friends, just as he has learnt that there are certain words and rude jokes that he keeps for the playground, out of the earshot of grandparents.

What if my son or this lad do grow up to be homosexual? To suggest it's the toys that cause it suggests a certain ignorance. So far my boy is a smashing lad, full of energy and joy. If he grows up self-sufficient and kind, what more can I ask?

Tell Dad to get the camera out and take the sort of photographs that will embarrass the youth when he turns into a macho yob. Ten years from now he's going to need all the ammunition he can get.

Ani Harris

Via Stockport

He'll turn to guns soon enough

My son also played with dolls at the age of four. We admired it as evidence of a desire to be like his father, who often puts the children to bed, carries them around town, reads to them and plays with them. However, if your husband is still worried, tell him to wait 18 months. At five- and-a-half, my son pretends everything is a gun and calls himself "Super- Sam". We hope that his parenting skills will not be lost for ever.

Maya Bave

East Cowes

If he turns out to be gay, that's OK

You and your husband should be happy that your son is a quiet child and not an "I-want-to-kill-you" one. If you look around, all these toddlers seem to become more and more violent. Myself, I was a quiet boy, who enjoyed sitting reading but not playing with dolls. My brother was fond of them until the age of 13. He is straight, has a beautiful girlfriend (beautiful as a doll). I'm a gay, very happy about it. So, please, don't label your son as gay. He is only four. And don't judge him if he really is. Let him be happy, that is all that matters.

David Hocde

London SW9

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA: I DON'T WANT TO BE GERTRUDE ANY MORE

Dear Virginia,

I am 28 and I was named Gertrude after my maternal grandmother. I've always hated it, and people smile when I'm introduced. "Gertie" is no better. My mother died last year. She was the only person who would have minded a change.

I would like to be called Stephanie, but will I be able to persuade my friends and family to call me that? Will I end up answering to two different names? Or am I just being silly - what's in a name? Should I learn to live with it and respect my mother's choice and my granny's memory?

Yours sincerely, Gertrude

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning.

If you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.

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