Imaginative play and developing empathy

So I had The View on this morning while I was giving Ada a bottle and trying to get her to take a much needed nap, when they started talking about gender issues with children's play, starting with the factoid that more boys are getting play kitchens now than ever before. Griffin loves playing in the kitchen, loves to watch me cook and point and talk about what I'm doing, and when we go to our friends' houses that have the play kitchens he'll spend the bulk of his time playing with it, taking things in and out of the "microwave" and cupboards, making "cupcakes", and generally having a fabulous time. It hadn't occured to me that getting him a play kitchen could be controversial.

The conversation turned to boys playing dress-up with female-oriented clothing, and the womens' opinions varied from protecting childrens' need for imaginative play (go Whoopee!) to how very WRONG it would be for a teacher to permit a boy to dress up in a princess outfit during dress-up play.


One of the ways people can understand others who come from a different point of view or experience is to try to put oneself in the other's place and see how it feels. Children intuitively know this when they try dressing up in mommy's or daddy's shoes. When a young boy puts on a dress during pretend play (not the same as insisting on wearing a dress to school or for regular daytime clothes), he is exploring what it's like to be something different from him. That's the whole point of pretend play - try something different. And, holy bejeesus, he's trying to understand what it's like for a girl to be a girl - give that boy a gold star and a huge hug! Hopefully he'll carry the same interest in understanding where the other sex is coming from well into his adulthood.

I would be very distressed if my boy came home from school with a story about how his teacher had stopped him or another boy from putting on a female-oriented costume during pretend play. Young children take their social cues from their teachers (remember the famous brown eyes v. blue eyes experiment from the '70's). By demonstrating to the class that there's something "wrong" and unacceptable about a boy playing pretend with female-oriented play stigmatizes the intuitive empathy-building play that the children otherwise would have engaged in and starts to build a wall between understanding between the sexes. At home I would do my best to dismantle the damage, but if the rest of the class goes along with it and adopts the teacher's point of view, as is likely, then chances are my child will go along with the group's view and limit his own pretend play along the lines of what's deemed acceptable by the group. This would be heartbreaking.