Barbie dolls for her grandson? Behind her son's back?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 22, 2012 06:00 AM

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I have a 8 year old grandson who's always liked to play with Barbie dolls. My son, his Dad, throws a fit if I let him play with them at my house. He's always liked them from birth on. I sneak and let him play with them at my home. Is this wrong? I sometimes worry why he likes them so much, but see nothing wrong in letting him be who he is. He is a great, sensitive, caring and mannerly child. Please, I need some feedback on this issue.
Thank you
From: Debbie, Hustonville, KY


Hi Debbie,

I have to start with a story told to me one night many years ago after I had delivered a talk to a group of parents of school-age kids. A woman came forward and identified herself as the grandmother of two, including an 11-year-old boy. Her daughter, the mom, was a hard-working, single mother with a no-TV rule. The kids, the grandma told me, were accepting of the rule, but she knew it was tough on her grandson whose friends watched -- and talked about -- "South Park" all the time.

For his 11th birthday, the grandmother told her daughter she was giving him a gift and she hoped the daughter would have an open mind. "As long as it's not a TV," said the mom, and they both laughed.

When he opened the grandmother's gift, he began to cry and said it was the best birthday present he'd ever received. It was a $12.95 "South Park" t-shirt. For $12.95, this grandma had bought her grandson social currency that was, as the ad says, priceless. The mom, to her credit, was equally appreciative.

I'm not suggesting Barbie is social currency for your grandson. What I am saying is that sometimes grandparents are smarter than they give themselves credit for, or than their adult children admit.

As I wrote last week, a child's home should be a place of safety and security. It saddens me to think that a child can't play with toys of his choice in his own home, that his choice of toys will make dad angry.

I'm behind you 100%, but I'm also for transparency. To have a secret you and your grandson keep from his father will only serve to strain the son's relationship with his dad even more. (BTW, where does the mom stand?) So what to do? Let your son know how much you love him and his children, that you will abide by his rules in his home, but in your home, you will have Barbie dolls for your grandson to play with. Let him know you don't want to go behind his back, and that you hope he will give it his blessing if not his approval. You don't need to rub it in your son's face when he's at your house; the dolls can be in a closet or whatever, but keeping the truth hidden from him models nothing positive to your grandson or to you anyone else in the family.

I know not everyone will agree with this advice. I hope we get to hear from all sides of this issue.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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17 comments so far...
  1. The real gift in the south park story is the grandmother. Wow, arent they lucky.

    Posted by Rosie May 22, 12 07:05 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advice. It's a sticky situation. Usually I would say that grandparents need to honor the decisions of the parents. But in this situation, the father's rule goes beyond safety and health and is a rejection of the child's identity and personality. I think the ethics of standing up for a child who's being unfairly restricted overrules the need to respect the parent's wishes. As Barbara said, I wouldn't sneak around about this, because this is an issue that needs to be confronted head on. The father needs to accept his child as he is, or this could lead to more serious issues as the boy enters his teenage years. And if the grandmother can responsibly encourage that acceptance, she should do so.

    Posted by Laura May 22, 12 08:20 AM
  1. I don't agree with this advice. Although I don't agree with the father's parenting decision, it's not the grandmother's place to purposely go against the father's express wishes.

    What would the advice be to the grandmother if that father's parenting wishes were over a different parenting decision? For example, if parents didn't allow their son to drink soda and have asked the grandmother not to serve soda to the boy, would it be ok for her to give him soda anyway because she doesn't agree with their ban on soda?

    Posted by Marie May 22, 12 09:17 AM
  1. This is the third such letter in a short time regarding parents who are freaked out about their sons' "non-macho" behavior. They are implying that if their sons did turn out to be gay, they wouldn't love them.

    This is so heartbreaking.

    Grammie, I'm so glad you give your grandson the unconditional love and acceptance that he needs. He will never forget it. I thought Barbara's advice was perfect, and I hope your son will open his mind in the future. Best wishes to you!

    Posted by just cause May 22, 12 11:40 AM
  1. How sad for this poor child.

    Its fairly obvious that the Dad in this story is terrified that playing will dolls will make or show that his kid is gay and hopes that his 'no doll' rule will either prevent this 'tragedy' from taking place or even better...his kid will learn to hide who his is and what interests him.

    Maybe Dad should find a boot camp that will take this 8 year old little boy and toughen him up a bit. He should also make it clear to his son that love is conditional and will be withheld if the kid doesn't measure up to Dad's standards and expectations.

    Or...maybe instead the Dad can let his kid be and allow him to choose the toys he wants to play with. While he's at it - the Dad can also thank and appreciate that fact that his mother is a loving grandmother who wants to be a positive influence in her grandson's life.

    Posted by Montyy May 22, 12 12:00 PM
  1. Barbara: Great advice, as usual. We had a "no TV" rule at our house for my two kids; however, Grandma set the rules in her house and the kids could watch as much as they wanted. The kids -- as well as the grandparents and parents -- respected the rules at both houses. This flexibility was par for the course in the relationship I had with my late mother-in-law. I loved her and learned so much from her. The writer's son should take a lesson in family dynamics. The "happy families" are the flexible, respectful ones.

    Posted by jbird May 22, 12 12:55 PM
  1. I think it might be worth it to talk to your son about why he doesn't doesn't want his son to play with barbies. Is there an underlying fear or concern? I think maybe trying to find out what's underneath that and reassuring your son that he's raising a well rounded child, might help him be okay with his son playing with barbies. I think as a society we don't let our boys explore their sensitivity and nurturing skills because it's not as socially acceptable as it is for girls. Maybe you already know the answer to this question, but if you don't, I think it's worth exploring.

    Posted by Momofaboy May 22, 12 03:02 PM
  1. Not that there's anything wrong with a boy playing with Barbies (I did it, and my 1.5 year old son can't get enough of his sisters' dress up princess shoes...), but would it help the situation if he had some "manly" toys to play with? I had some Fischer-Price action figures as well as GI Joes as a kid. Would Dad be more accepting of this, and would your grandson have just as much fun?

    Posted by MITBeta May 22, 12 03:07 PM
  1. this may result in less visitation for the grandparent.

    Posted by p t May 22, 12 04:05 PM
  1. Yes, you would like to be open-minded about the dolls. Yes, it would be nice if Dad didn't mind.

    But is this the stand you want to make? If Dad is reasonable about the other 99.5% of the kid's life, perhaps you can set aside your desire to wave the tolerance flag on this one. It's nice to let the boy play with a variety of toys, but it risks being about making the point itself instead of about the kid's enjoying himself.

    Playing with them once in a while at your house is a reasonable compromise. But if that is really going to cause more friction than it is worth--are there other character dolls or stuffed animals that are less stereotypically "girly" that Grandson can tell stories with? Or have a mix of boy and girl dolls from High School Musical or whatever? And make sure he has other toys at your house and isn't just playing with the dolls.

    Sneaking is a deal-breaker for just about anyone, because you will not be trusted.

    Posted by di May 22, 12 05:20 PM
  1. I loved them as a child. It is natural for both sexes to want to play with them, otherwise he wouldn't want to.

    Posted by Tom May 22, 12 05:51 PM
  1. Why on earth would anyone give a Barbie to an infant (the LW says her grandson has liked them from birth...) of either gender? Babies like soft toys, for heaven's sake. It seems to me as though someone (Grandma? older sister?) was pushing Barbies onto this child when he would probably have preferred something more age-appropriate, and he had no alternative but to develop a liking for them! Don't get me wrong - I think both boys and girls should play with dolls if they want to. But real dolls, please, that look like children, that they can role-play familiar parenting scenarios with. Not creepily elongated tiny-waisted enormous-boobed bits of plastic that wear impossibly high heels and nasty garish outfits! (Sorry about the hate... I know... I should try to control it... but Barbies do set me off a bit....)

    Posted by alien57 May 22, 12 09:40 PM
  1. Marie, you're going to need to come up with a better example. Not allowing soda makes sense for health reasons. What are the health reasons for not allowing Barbies? It's simply not rational.

    Let's call a spade a spade. Dad doesn't want him playing with Barbie for obvious reasons. It's a girl's toy. He's afraid of what it might mean. He's afraid his son migh be teased. Dad is confused. However, if it does mean what he's afraid of-that his son is gay (and I truly believe toy preferences are not the best indicator of this), withholding Barbies isn't going to change that.

    Having said that, this advice is spot on. And I think it is a big deal for Grandma to take a stand for her grandson. I think it's wonderful he has someone on his side. If it leads to less visits with grandma, shame on dad. I can only hope he would consider his son's and his mother's feelings before doing something so drastic and selfish.

    Posted by Linney May 23, 12 09:21 AM
  1. this is a LW from kentucky. conservatives states often highly prioritize parents rights to raise children. often grandparents have little or no legal rights to visitation. this is something that the gandmother should investigate and keep in mind when considering deceiving one of the parents.

    Posted by p t May 23, 12 11:23 AM
  1. Every time I hear of one of these fathers getting all bent out of shape over what their sons want to play with, I really want to leap through the internet and shake them.

    I'm a female engineer. When I was growing up, I liked dolls. But I also liked climbing trees, disassembling my bike, microscopes, geology kits, getting filthy, legos, and chemistry sets - in other words, a lot of stereotypical 'boy' stuff. I would wear dresses if the occasion called for it, but mostly, I wanted to wear stuff I could get dirty in. If my parents had freaked out and decided that I should only play with dolls and wear pink and stay still and not get dirty, I wouldn't be who I am today. I didn't turn out to be a lesbian (although some of my very best friends were and are), had no trouble finding guys to date and a wonderful man to marry. But at the same time, I wasn't going to giggle and act dumb so that boys wouldn't be intimidated. My parents just let me pursue my interests, provided they weren't going to cause physical harm (and even then, my mom let me do some chemistry experiments that are probably best forgotten).

    Maybe the boy who is playing with Barbies today will be a filmmaker tomorrow. Or a great dad. Or a sorely needed male teacher who is a good role model. Guys need to stop with the macho bs - it serves no one.

    Posted by BMS May 24, 12 11:33 AM
  1. as a parent, if i couldn't trust my mother-in-law to follow my wishes, then she would very likely find herself on the outside. she had her opportunity to raise her child. this is not her chance for a "do over". oh, btw, my mother-in-law believes in working the soft flesh of babies/toddlers in an attempt to "mold" features (ie big nose then rub/press down on it repeatedly). so, keep in mind, whether or not you agree with this father, you are not the father.

    Posted by p t May 24, 12 11:59 AM
  1. Dad says no. Dad is the dad. Surely there is something else he likes to do just as much that you could do together when he's with you. You're the grandmother and it's not your job to give ultimatums unless the child is in danger. Take the Barbies out of the picture altogether and turn it into a non-issue by figuring out how else to make him happy. Supporting and encouraging his needs and interests doesn't have to include buying and sneaking in forbidden toys.

    If I wanted to skydive and my mom forbade it, my dad wouldn't go hire a skydiving instructor for me. He might get me up in a 2-seater as a birthday gift or offer to go to one of those indoor places with me, thus showing support without directly defying my mother's express wishes. He may disagree, but she's the mother, so he respects her.

    Besides, after 8-9 Barbies aren't 'cool' even for girls. You wouldn't encourage his love of Barney after age 5, or his love of smoking before 18. For everything there is a season, and his Barbie season is maxing out. Help him transition to something else.

    Posted by DifferentPerspective May 24, 12 04:10 PM
 
17 comments so far...
  1. The real gift in the south park story is the grandmother. Wow, arent they lucky.

    Posted by Rosie May 22, 12 07:05 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advice. It's a sticky situation. Usually I would say that grandparents need to honor the decisions of the parents. But in this situation, the father's rule goes beyond safety and health and is a rejection of the child's identity and personality. I think the ethics of standing up for a child who's being unfairly restricted overrules the need to respect the parent's wishes. As Barbara said, I wouldn't sneak around about this, because this is an issue that needs to be confronted head on. The father needs to accept his child as he is, or this could lead to more serious issues as the boy enters his teenage years. And if the grandmother can responsibly encourage that acceptance, she should do so.

    Posted by Laura May 22, 12 08:20 AM
  1. I don't agree with this advice. Although I don't agree with the father's parenting decision, it's not the grandmother's place to purposely go against the father's express wishes.

    What would the advice be to the grandmother if that father's parenting wishes were over a different parenting decision? For example, if parents didn't allow their son to drink soda and have asked the grandmother not to serve soda to the boy, would it be ok for her to give him soda anyway because she doesn't agree with their ban on soda?

    Posted by Marie May 22, 12 09:17 AM
  1. This is the third such letter in a short time regarding parents who are freaked out about their sons' "non-macho" behavior. They are implying that if their sons did turn out to be gay, they wouldn't love them.

    This is so heartbreaking.

    Grammie, I'm so glad you give your grandson the unconditional love and acceptance that he needs. He will never forget it. I thought Barbara's advice was perfect, and I hope your son will open his mind in the future. Best wishes to you!

    Posted by just cause May 22, 12 11:40 AM
  1. How sad for this poor child.

    Its fairly obvious that the Dad in this story is terrified that playing will dolls will make or show that his kid is gay and hopes that his 'no doll' rule will either prevent this 'tragedy' from taking place or even better...his kid will learn to hide who his is and what interests him.

    Maybe Dad should find a boot camp that will take this 8 year old little boy and toughen him up a bit. He should also make it clear to his son that love is conditional and will be withheld if the kid doesn't measure up to Dad's standards and expectations.

    Or...maybe instead the Dad can let his kid be and allow him to choose the toys he wants to play with. While he's at it - the Dad can also thank and appreciate that fact that his mother is a loving grandmother who wants to be a positive influence in her grandson's life.

    Posted by Montyy May 22, 12 12:00 PM
  1. Barbara: Great advice, as usual. We had a "no TV" rule at our house for my two kids; however, Grandma set the rules in her house and the kids could watch as much as they wanted. The kids -- as well as the grandparents and parents -- respected the rules at both houses. This flexibility was par for the course in the relationship I had with my late mother-in-law. I loved her and learned so much from her. The writer's son should take a lesson in family dynamics. The "happy families" are the flexible, respectful ones.

    Posted by jbird May 22, 12 12:55 PM
  1. I think it might be worth it to talk to your son about why he doesn't doesn't want his son to play with barbies. Is there an underlying fear or concern? I think maybe trying to find out what's underneath that and reassuring your son that he's raising a well rounded child, might help him be okay with his son playing with barbies. I think as a society we don't let our boys explore their sensitivity and nurturing skills because it's not as socially acceptable as it is for girls. Maybe you already know the answer to this question, but if you don't, I think it's worth exploring.

    Posted by Momofaboy May 22, 12 03:02 PM
  1. Not that there's anything wrong with a boy playing with Barbies (I did it, and my 1.5 year old son can't get enough of his sisters' dress up princess shoes...), but would it help the situation if he had some "manly" toys to play with? I had some Fischer-Price action figures as well as GI Joes as a kid. Would Dad be more accepting of this, and would your grandson have just as much fun?

    Posted by MITBeta May 22, 12 03:07 PM
  1. this may result in less visitation for the grandparent.

    Posted by p t May 22, 12 04:05 PM
  1. Yes, you would like to be open-minded about the dolls. Yes, it would be nice if Dad didn't mind.

    But is this the stand you want to make? If Dad is reasonable about the other 99.5% of the kid's life, perhaps you can set aside your desire to wave the tolerance flag on this one. It's nice to let the boy play with a variety of toys, but it risks being about making the point itself instead of about the kid's enjoying himself.

    Playing with them once in a while at your house is a reasonable compromise. But if that is really going to cause more friction than it is worth--are there other character dolls or stuffed animals that are less stereotypically "girly" that Grandson can tell stories with? Or have a mix of boy and girl dolls from High School Musical or whatever? And make sure he has other toys at your house and isn't just playing with the dolls.

    Sneaking is a deal-breaker for just about anyone, because you will not be trusted.

    Posted by di May 22, 12 05:20 PM
  1. I loved them as a child. It is natural for both sexes to want to play with them, otherwise he wouldn't want to.

    Posted by Tom May 22, 12 05:51 PM
  1. Why on earth would anyone give a Barbie to an infant (the LW says her grandson has liked them from birth...) of either gender? Babies like soft toys, for heaven's sake. It seems to me as though someone (Grandma? older sister?) was pushing Barbies onto this child when he would probably have preferred something more age-appropriate, and he had no alternative but to develop a liking for them! Don't get me wrong - I think both boys and girls should play with dolls if they want to. But real dolls, please, that look like children, that they can role-play familiar parenting scenarios with. Not creepily elongated tiny-waisted enormous-boobed bits of plastic that wear impossibly high heels and nasty garish outfits! (Sorry about the hate... I know... I should try to control it... but Barbies do set me off a bit....)

    Posted by alien57 May 22, 12 09:40 PM
  1. Marie, you're going to need to come up with a better example. Not allowing soda makes sense for health reasons. What are the health reasons for not allowing Barbies? It's simply not rational.

    Let's call a spade a spade. Dad doesn't want him playing with Barbie for obvious reasons. It's a girl's toy. He's afraid of what it might mean. He's afraid his son migh be teased. Dad is confused. However, if it does mean what he's afraid of-that his son is gay (and I truly believe toy preferences are not the best indicator of this), withholding Barbies isn't going to change that.

    Having said that, this advice is spot on. And I think it is a big deal for Grandma to take a stand for her grandson. I think it's wonderful he has someone on his side. If it leads to less visits with grandma, shame on dad. I can only hope he would consider his son's and his mother's feelings before doing something so drastic and selfish.

    Posted by Linney May 23, 12 09:21 AM
  1. this is a LW from kentucky. conservatives states often highly prioritize parents rights to raise children. often grandparents have little or no legal rights to visitation. this is something that the gandmother should investigate and keep in mind when considering deceiving one of the parents.

    Posted by p t May 23, 12 11:23 AM
  1. Every time I hear of one of these fathers getting all bent out of shape over what their sons want to play with, I really want to leap through the internet and shake them.

    I'm a female engineer. When I was growing up, I liked dolls. But I also liked climbing trees, disassembling my bike, microscopes, geology kits, getting filthy, legos, and chemistry sets - in other words, a lot of stereotypical 'boy' stuff. I would wear dresses if the occasion called for it, but mostly, I wanted to wear stuff I could get dirty in. If my parents had freaked out and decided that I should only play with dolls and wear pink and stay still and not get dirty, I wouldn't be who I am today. I didn't turn out to be a lesbian (although some of my very best friends were and are), had no trouble finding guys to date and a wonderful man to marry. But at the same time, I wasn't going to giggle and act dumb so that boys wouldn't be intimidated. My parents just let me pursue my interests, provided they weren't going to cause physical harm (and even then, my mom let me do some chemistry experiments that are probably best forgotten).

    Maybe the boy who is playing with Barbies today will be a filmmaker tomorrow. Or a great dad. Or a sorely needed male teacher who is a good role model. Guys need to stop with the macho bs - it serves no one.

    Posted by BMS May 24, 12 11:33 AM
  1. as a parent, if i couldn't trust my mother-in-law to follow my wishes, then she would very likely find herself on the outside. she had her opportunity to raise her child. this is not her chance for a "do over". oh, btw, my mother-in-law believes in working the soft flesh of babies/toddlers in an attempt to "mold" features (ie big nose then rub/press down on it repeatedly). so, keep in mind, whether or not you agree with this father, you are not the father.

    Posted by p t May 24, 12 11:59 AM
  1. Dad says no. Dad is the dad. Surely there is something else he likes to do just as much that you could do together when he's with you. You're the grandmother and it's not your job to give ultimatums unless the child is in danger. Take the Barbies out of the picture altogether and turn it into a non-issue by figuring out how else to make him happy. Supporting and encouraging his needs and interests doesn't have to include buying and sneaking in forbidden toys.

    If I wanted to skydive and my mom forbade it, my dad wouldn't go hire a skydiving instructor for me. He might get me up in a 2-seater as a birthday gift or offer to go to one of those indoor places with me, thus showing support without directly defying my mother's express wishes. He may disagree, but she's the mother, so he respects her.

    Besides, after 8-9 Barbies aren't 'cool' even for girls. You wouldn't encourage his love of Barney after age 5, or his love of smoking before 18. For everything there is a season, and his Barbie season is maxing out. Help him transition to something else.

    Posted by DifferentPerspective May 24, 12 04:10 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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