When my older son was a toddler, he played with baby dolls, given to him by my mother. He’d push them around in the little stroller I’d found at a thrift store. He fed them toy bottles. When his brother was born, he sometimes wore one in a little sling, mimicking the way my husband and I carried our infant.

I hoped that by making dolls available alongside trucks and Duplo and a toy kitchen, he’d take advantage of the broad options for play and perhaps learn some bigger lessons, like how nurturing isn’t a trait exclusive to women. As an egalitarian mom, I have to admit I beamed with pride during the short times when my sons loved baby dolls or favored the color pink.

Then, when they were big enough to play together, I found my boys tying dolls to stakes, or trapping and jailing them as if they were enemy combatants. I never saw them use a doll as a weapon. But their hobbyhorses and plenty of other objects were turned into rifles and swords for play fighting. There goes my attempt to raise pacifist, nurturing sons, I thought as they grew to embody many boy stereotypes.

I read everything I could find about kids and play, worried about the violence and roughhousing. A psychologist comforted me by saying as long as the boys aren’t actually harming anyone in “real life,” just play, it’s best not to interfere. Play is a child’s work, and their freedom in this area can be crucial for their development and understanding of the world.

Like many moms of boys, I had to make peace with my sons’ thirst for (pretend) war.

The fact that boys can turn anything into a weapon or competition—and girls, on the other hand, can bring any object into their world of mommies ...

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