Guest Post: Kristen Herrett on “Raising Daddies”

Kristen Herrett of St. Monica’s Bridge graciously allowed me to repost her sensible and valuable essay about her letting her sons play with baby dolls.  I especially liked the line:  “I want them to understand that sometimes we make mistakes, but our love is never a mistake.”

Raising Daddies

by Kristen Herrett

The images in this post are of my sons. With a baby doll. I posted them on Facebook a few weeks ago to mixed reviews. Most thought they were cute. A few privately messaged me to take them down and stop letting my boys “play with dolls.” The pictures remain and my boys still have access to the doll.

When I became a mother I had certain ideas of how I was going to raise my children. I would venture to guess most mothers do. I quickly found out that some of these ideas I had did not exactly fit my temperament, my mothering style or my kids. I was all about babywearing. My babies, not so much. I thought co-sleeping would be great…but I wasn’t doing any of the sleeping part. Other things, like breastfeeding, were great.

I never set out to raise my children in a “gender neutral” household. And really, they don’t live in one. Yes, when Jeff is home he cooks, but that’s because he is a chef. And I do wear pants. And for a time, I worked while he stayed home with the children. And there have been occasions where emergency or budget have dictated one of my boys have worn a pink pull-up or had a pink pacifier. But, for the most part, boys are boys and girls are girls here.

Shelby has a few “baby” dolls. She sometimes shows interest in them, mostly does not. Real babies hold no interest for her until they are able to sit up. It is only then that she sort of “gets” that this thing that mommy is carrying constantly is a human being. We keep the baby dolls out and praise her when she shows interest, not because it is a girl toy, but because she is behind with her social interactions and encouraging a positive association with infants is important for her to learn.

The phenomenon of the boys and this baby doll is a recent thing. It has only occurred after my brothers began spending time with my best friend’s new-born infant son. Joey likes to “practice” holding the baby so he can hold Baby Ryan and his soon to be born cousin Baby Bella. He also practices how to feed the baby and give it a paci when it cries. He has named the baby “Will” after his brother. For Will, he wants to imitate his big brother and he needs to practice being gentle around babies for sure!

I do not for a minute think I am confusing my boys or emasculating them. After all, they don’t want to wear dresses now and have proclaimed that Barbies are for girls. But I realize that some people very much view it that way. So, I will go ahead and explain why I haven’t ripped the doll out of my boys’ hands.

I am raising children. Some day, my boys may very likely become fathers. I want to raise them to be good Daddies. I don’t want them to fear their children when they are newborns. I want them to approach the task with some kind of confidence. I want them to understand that sometimes we make mistakes, but our love is never a mistake. I want them to be able to support a wife who has difficulty breastfeeding and be able to comfort a crying child. We forget these things are not necessarily traits we are born with. I’ve watched many a father struggle and wish they could have just observed their dads doing some of the parenting things they find themselves doing, let alone been encouraged to do them themselves.

And for the record, my boys do an inordinately large amount of wrestling, shooting each other with water guns, fighting, playing Thomas and rooting for Penn State and Carolina’s football teams.

Parenting is a very difficult task. One that no matter how many books you read you can never fully master. I’ve chosen to try to expose my children to learning through doing. And right now, my sons seem to be proponents of attachment parenting (we say Joey is co-sleeping in the picture above). Will they continue as adults? Who knows, there is a lot of time between now and then…in the mean time I hope and pray that I am raising daddies who will rise to the task of fathering their children in the best ways possible.


  1. I can’t believe people gave you negative feedback about the pictures of your sons with baby dolls! My son (age 2 years 9 months) has a boy baby doll that my 70+ year old mother-in-law gave him two years ago. He doesn’t spend a whole lot of time playing with it, but we take the doll grocery shopping in his toy shopping cart to his toy kitchen (some of your FB friends would really hate me now!), and sometimes he’ll snuggle with the baby or dance with it. He has plenty of boy toys (a workbench, lawn tools, a garage with cars, etc), and I don’t worry in the least about emasculating him. He loves real babies, and I think that’s great. He’ll be a wonderful father some day.

  2. Wow, I’m amazed that it’s even a controversy. Don’t we want our boys and men to love babies too? Our boys have had their share of baby dolls too, but my husband and I have always been amused at how differently they tend to play with them than the girls do. 😉

    • Re: “how differently they tend to play with them”

      Each of my kids has a special doll I made for him/her. I made them partly with the thought that the kids would play at being fathers and mothers, and that is exactly what all the girls have done. The dolls are their daughters, I am the dolls’ grandmother, and so on. But quite on their own, the boys have from the beginning treated their dolls as peers, not offspring. Perhaps I should have made the dolls more infant-like in appearance!

  3. Great Post! My girls and my older son (now 3) all play with dolls, but the funny thing is, they play with them differently!

    When my son plays with a baby doll, he brings it to me to nurse. He changes its diapers, carries it around, tosses it gently in the air, rocks it to sleep, then pats it on the head and says ‘I have to go work now’ and wanders off until he ‘comes home.’

    When his brother was a newborn, My big boy stole my girls’ Ken doll and the barbie babies, and Ken spent a day changing diapers and burping babies.

    Boys are pretty clear they want to be Daddies when they grow up, not Mommies. Well, either that or “sword-fighter guys.”

    But actually, the dolls are pretty superfluous to the whole idea of ‘raising daddies.’ My son plays at being a loving daddy who helps change diapers and plays with babies because he HAS a loving Daddy. He models what he sees.
    Toys are just toys. It’s the PEOPLE we surround are kids with that is important!

  4. My son also adopted a baby doll when he was a toddler. It had belonged to a boy cousin (and let me tell you, ten years ago it was really hard to find a baby doll that wasn’t wearing pink!), and Myles took him as his own. He named the baby “Offense.” When asked why that name, and not “Defense” he said it was because “Defense” is a girl’s name.

  5. Even though my husband is eight years older than his only sibling, he never held/fed/diapered/etc her as a baby. We don’t have children of our own (yet, please God), but I am always amazed at how frightened he is of friends’ newborns. He wants kids, and will admire them from a distance, but the actual care and upkeep freaks him out. If I ever get pregnant, I’m going to have to buy him a doll so he can practice… and he’s 35. The Facebook police can stick that in their pipe and smoke it.

    • For as many men as are seemingly natural baby holders, I’ve seen a number who look very awkward, like they know which end goes up but that’s about it.

  6. (quoting Deirdre) “My son plays at being a loving daddy who helps change diapers and plays with babies because he HAS a loving Daddy. He models what he sees.”


    Most toys in our house – girl and boy toys – are used by all. We’re not out for gender neutrality – just fairness. And when it’s not exactly fair, we try to offer a trade-off… Boys get to pee standing up; girls get to wear nail polish! Fair.

  7. My son has a perpetual temporary fort in his room, constructed of unpacked boxes (here we are in month three – wanna be me?) and a moving blanket whose “clean” status is unverifiable. My girls dolls (which they don’t play with much anymore) began disappearing over the course of a week or so. When we noticed and went looking for them, they were in the fort.

    me: Why, son?

    him: Mom (hand on hip, duh expression) I’m protecting the princesses, they have to stay in the fort until the war guys leave.

    me: (Amen)

    I figure I can teach him that girls are pretty good at shooing off the war guys, too, should the need arise, but honey, that protective instinct – you play with those dolls all you like.

  8. My husband was raised with hyper-masculine expectations and lived up to the expectations well, he refused to do anything with our first baby, because he felt so out of his league (he was unable to do any housework or cooking either). After we moved away from family and he was able to drop that persona and begin to be himself he has become the most amazing husband and father. He feeds, dresses, daiper changes, plays with them all by himself. He cooks a little, does dishes and helps with the babies at night. He paints his toddlers toenails and lets them brush his hair. He is not the “typical” male, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything.

  9. Beautiful guest post! I think those worrywarts on FB are reacting to all the anti-male chaos that is gripping the world- but helping boys become gentle fathers is always a good thing. And I love the comment where her son was protecting the princesses- With an involved dad and a normal mom (and God’s grace, of course)- our boys will turn out just fine

  10. I think all my sons at some point in their young years played with dolls and wore dresses and had their hair done by elder sisters. It hasn’t affected their masculinity one whit. However, I don’t think playing with dolls helps men become better fathers. (I’ve known some women who were pretty terrible mothers even though they had dolls when young). What I think helps is having the good example of their own father. Having good relationships with sisters also helps a guy “get” the female thing as well. Really, if a man is raised to think of others, be unselfish, be self-sacrificing he’ll make a great father.

    • I don’t think playing with dolls in and of itself will make my son a good father (and he really doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with his doll, so it’s a good thing that’s not the criteria for becoming a good father!). But the way he treats his doll and real babies so lovingly is a characteristic of his affectionate, gentle nature which will make him a great father some day. (Some of that definitely comes from how my husband relates to him.) My response to the tenderness he shows to his doll and to real babies will further foster the qualities that will make him a good father. I can’t imagine why anyone would see this as a negative, or as an un-masculine trait. (I know I’m “preaching to the choir”.)

  11. Yes, I agree with what Deirdre Mundy said (and lots of you agree with): “Toys are just toys. It’s the PEOPLE we surround are kids with that is important!”

    I’m generally in favor of letting kids play with whatever they want to play with, and only discouraging things that I see are having a bad effect on them.

    Same goes for girls and Barbies. I used to be a lot more uptight about them, but I soon realized that kids don’t care as much about these things as we do — toys are just one little piece in the big picture.

  12. I love this…
    To be honest, parenting came much more naturally to my husband than myself. He has younger siblings who he had to cook for and take care of while his mom was working. His father was only briefly in the picture as a teenager.
    I have older siblings and a younger brother close in age and never had the experience of caring for a younger person.
    My husband would come home from work and I would hand him the baby and say, “I got nothing done because he(or she) wanted to be held all day.” He would then take the baby and put him/her in the sling and do some laundry and I’d think “show off.”
    My husband is a sports fanatic and not feminine in any way unless you think being able to cook, taking care of babies/kids, being an excellent childbirth coach, happily co-sleeps and #1 breastfeeding supporter (and not afraid to give advice to female co-workers) is any of those things…I just think he is my hero and a great example of what a strong man whose comfortable with his masculinity looks like.

  13. My grandma told me that her mother-in-law (who happens to be the grandmother of an archbishop) used to say that every kid needed a baby doll. She just thought it was developmentally good for all kids to have. This was a Depression-era farmer’s wife. I don’t have boys, but I have 4 younger brothers. We often shared toys, and my brothers were definitely forced to play house with me (and maybe I forced one of them into a strawberry shortcake outfit by claiming it was “captain hook who cooks”) but they also did all of the typical boy stuff, turned everything in to a gun, etc. I think we learned a lot just by interacting with each other. My older daughter isn’t into girly stuff much (cannot get a bow on that girl, no matter how hard I try), but even the way she plays with less-girly toys shows her female-ness. Great article – I love how Kristen tied it into the idea of “raising daddies.” Our pastor, who was the oldest in a large family, told us he used to help his mom with the babies, change diapers, etc – and he is a wonderful, manly priest.

  14. Lovely post, thanks. I have three girls and a boy. He stole the baby doll from his older sister, so I got him one just like it. I don’t mind it at all.

  15. I have a girl then a boy. There are a lot more girl toys around (she’s had more time to accumulate, don’t get me wrong, he has plenty, but there are still more girlish toys than boyish toys). He plays with Barbies, puts on dress-up dresses, and has even taken the dolls out on his own. I don’t make a big deal. I only get slightly worried when he wants to wear the real dresses to school pick-up! And then it’s only about what the other moms are going to say. I know he will be done with dresses by the time he is 8:)

    Right now, he loves his sister and wants to be like her. And I love that!

  16. Great!

    I have seven kids, including 3 boys: ages 16, 12, and 4 months.

    I have the most special pictures of the 12 y old a few yrs ago on our back porch chaise- guess the younger 2 sisters, at the time probably about 4 and 6 yrs old, got him to babysit their baby while they went ‘shopping’ or something. There he was patiently holding the babydoll just as he’d have held a real baby there while he didn’t know he was being observed by me- he must’ve been about 8. He wasn’t dangling it by it’s legs or swatting bugs with it, nor was he gushing over it in any way- he was just babysitting t til the girls came back! Thought to myself, ‘… Gonna be a good daddy one day…’

    Now we have little chubby baby boy- everyone is gaga, and the 16 and 12 yr old boys are unabashedly loving and affectionate to their baby brother— they’re as bad as any of us girls are w loving him up and doing the googoo talk w him and all.

    The other day we gave babyboy a little doll to hold and mouthe, being that he is getting good w reaching and grasping and little babydoll has all those arms and legs to hold plus a hood shock of hair which is perfect for him to suck on. He likes his baby.

    My boys are every bit 300% BOY w everything that comes w that. And they like babies!

  17. I especially love the paragraph this mom wrote about raising the boys with an eye toward the future – that they will be fathers. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Having five small children myself, that’s a perspective that helps me quite a bit through the roughest days.
    Sort of related to this post, but really not… On a very personal note, I’d like to share an experience that has changed the world of parenting for me in the past two years.
    Our oldest son (now seven) started saying “I want to be a girl.” This was accompanied by some decidedly effeminate behaviors and a preference for girls toys and female characters, etc. There are some great books for parents out there who are concerned about such persistent behavior in boys, namely by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi and Fr. John Waiss. There are very specific actions (mainly on the part of the father) that can and should be taken to encourage a boy to be comfortable with himself and around other boys, ideally before adolescence. I am thankful that a wonderful Catholic family therapist in the DC area guided us to these resources, and for my husband’s heroic actions in the aftermath: going so far as to change jobs, reduce his salary, and move our family across the country in order to have more time to spend with our sons – a critical part of any boy’s development. We were so ignorant of this particular cost of his working slavish hours at a big law firm in the early years of our son’s life. Our most fervent prayer these days is that, as we strive to do a better job on the human level, that God will compensate for our many shortcomings.
    Anyway, I mention all of this only because it’s something that, thankfully, not all parents have to cope with (and pray fervently about!) in their parenting. The experience has certainly strengthened our faith in God’s love and mercy, but that’s the only good thing I can say about it. We still see some troubling behaviors, and the going is anything but easy. So for those parents who are (thankfully!) unfamiliar with such circumstances, it might be utterly perplexing that some parents react less placidly to these pictures. Of course, it’s also possible that there were less charitable motives behind the objections. I dunno. Anyway, I don’t hate the boy-playing-with-dolls idea. It would be odd, I think, for me to think I know better than this mom what is good for her children. As for me, I don’t let my sons play with dolls, not because I’m narrow minded or ignorant or because I think it will “solve” this utterly complex situation, but because I have to complement our many supernatural efforts on behalf of our son, with some human efforts. And the human efforts are much much trickier. Keeping dolls and pink dresses out of the house is the easy part.
    As I said, obviously not really related to the lovely post by this mother. My scenario is not that rare, but knowing how to cope with it *is* rare. So I really only share here in the hopes of helping someone who stumbles upon this exchange and could use the encouragement. Trust in the Lord! He loves our children so much more than we do.

    • MommaN, I’m so sorry for what you’re going through with your son. Kudos to your husband for making his relationship with your son a priority. I pray that this will resolve for you.

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