It’s true that a lot of my friends did just want to play house, or “mother”—they wanted to have tea parties, burp their babies, push them around in strollers (for some reason, not everyone thinks that playing orphaned factory worker is fun). But I don’t think these kids are being narcissistic: quite the opposite. These kids show the sort of nurturing, protective instinct that makes them good siblings, babysitters, or caretakers as they get older. They’re learning to think about a little human besides themselves who needs care and attention. Dolls teach them to care.
For me, dolls cultivated a similar instinct, but in a different vein. My stories often revolved around injustices and wrongs righted, stories of peril and hardship that led to happy endings. I was picking up on themes of human depravity and suffering, but also themes of forgiveness, diligence, and compassion. I was angered by injustices suffered by others, and I wanted to explore those hardships and understand them better. I was beginning to think about the difficulties of war, abandonment, poverty, displacement. Dolls helped me explore these worlds, helped cultivate in me an empathy for human experiences I had not yet encountered personally.
Daum argues that “animals are more closely connected with the imaginative world than dolls are,” because they’re “ageless, genderless, and come in colors that defy nature. To play with a stuffed panda … is a creative act.” But it seems an unfair characterization to say creativity and imagination can only be exercised in a world untouched by age, gender, or other human designations. Perhaps it lends itself to a sort of creativity—but it’s limiting in other ways.