Playing with Dolls is Serious Fun

By Barbara F. Meltz

"You can never have too many dolls," declares Fiona Boger of Newton, who is 6 1/2. Fiona doesn't know it, but she is speaking more than her heart's desire. Psychologists and educators who study doll play say dolls are among the most important toys of childhood.

Having a lot of dolls is like having a lot of friends and relatives," explains psychologiest Allana Elovson, who specializes in early socialization for girls and boys.

"Girls don't even think of them as dolls. They are friends," she says. If you walk into your bedroom and your dolls are all lined up, "it makes you feel warm and cozy because you are surrounded by so many friends."

Consider, for instance, the relationship Fiona's schoolmate, Rebecca Housman, also 6 1/2, has with her American Girl doll, Molly. There is Molly at the restaurant with the Housman family. There she is the next morning, at the breakfast table. Just the other day, Rebecca announced she is saving her money so she and Molly can have matching nightgowns.

Rebecca likes Molly so much, she says, "because she looks like she'd be fun to be my friend if she were real."

Molly is not the only doll Rebecca enjoys. The nine baby dolls and bride doll that line the window seat in her bedroom, and her 14 Barbie and three Ken dolls, are also important playmates.

Just as adults have different friends to meet different needs, so, too, do assorted dolls meet a girl's moods and need. "Dolls are always a projection for the child," says Elovson.

With baby dolls, Rebecca and Fiona pretend to be the mother or schoolteacher or big sister. When they play with Barbies, which is what they often do when they play together, they are the dolls' friends, imagining themselves as teen-agers. With Molly, who is 9, Rebecca is a peer. In each case, they are trying on a different role.

"Because dolls are so close to the human form, a girl tests out on them whatever it is she is trying to make sense of in the real world," says Sally Turk, head teacher of the 2- and 3- year-old classrooms at Wellesley College Child Studies Center. Elovson says, "Barbie is a hands-on way in which girls get an unrealisitic and unattainable image of a woman's body." Watson worries about the materialistic values Barbie generates, and urges parents to be clear about their own family values.

Nonetheless, Elovson says parents should not ban Barbie. "If all her friends have one, she will suffer more from not being part of the group," she explains. Luria tells feminist mothers who may not want their daughters to play with any dolls, "What's most respectful for your daughter is to give her an array of toys and let her play as she wants." Similarly, she tells mothers not to force dolls on sons.

Rogers speculates that the hot-selling catalog-only American Girl doll, which unfortunately sells for $80, may be a good antidote to Barbie. "It's important for girls to have a doll that reflects accurately who they are," she says.

Obviously, there is room-- and a need-- in a girl's heart for variety when it comes to dolls. So the next time your daughter requests yet another doll for her birthday, remember those words of wisdom from Fiona Boger: "You can never have too many dolls."