Should Boys Play With Dolls To Solve The Caring Crisis?

20/01/2015 16:44 | Updated 20 May 2015

Jo Swinson MP

Should we be encouraging boys to play with dolls?

Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson thinks so.

The Equalities Minister and mum to one-year-old Andrew believes it would make boys more sensitive and they would then grow up wanting to be care workers – an occupation where men are overwhelmingly under-represented.

During a Commons debate on the shortage of carers, Ms Swinson, told MPs: "If we need to expand the number of care workers and there is a huge shortage of men in the care profession, the biggest pool available for expansion is boys and young men, and we need to get them to consider caring as a profession.

"Again, stereotyping is important, as are the messages we send children about the roles of men and women, and whether boys can be nurturing and caring and - yes, dare I say it? - play with dolls.

"We should see habits of care and nurture as being just as appropriate for boys and men as for girls and women. It is important, and it will help us plug the skills gap."

Ms Swinson's intentions are noble, without a doubt.

My 18-year-old niece is a care worker in the dementia wing of an old people's home. It happens to be the same home where my mum – her grandmother – died.

And in the room where my mum took her last breath – the room my niece, at the age of 14, used to visit and wipe the hardened spittle from my mum's lips and moisturise the shins of her dry legs, while talking to her about her dreams of being a hairdresser - she now cares for, amongst others, an 80-year-old man whose Alzheimer's causes him to behave aggressively.

He calls her a c*** and a b*****, all while she's wiping his bum. Sometimes my niece strokes his hand while he sobs and calls her the name of the daughter who never visits (did SHE play with dolls?), just as she held her grandmother in her arms in that same bed when she was 14 years old.

Like many girls, my niece played with dolls when she was little.

Is this why she became a care worker? Is it what made her caring?

Nope. Because she isn't. Not especially. The fact is, she hates her job. Hates it with a passion. It's not that she doesn't feel sympathy for the residents, and empathy for the family members who visit. It's just that the sight of so much piss and shit – not to mention the smell – from old people has made her uncomfortably numb.

She used to be such a care-free, fun-loving teen: now her eyes stare blankly into space, like a veteran of battlefield horrors.

A dementia wing of an old people's home is no place for young girl. Certainly not a girl who wanted to be a hairdresser and even has some qualifications (well, we all need our hair cutting, don't we?).

Perhaps that dream was because she played with dolls: I certainly remember when she was little she spent many happy times with her grandmother brushing Barbie's hair. (Although, I asked my own barber if he ever played with dolls and he denied it. Well he would, wouldn't he?)

But she hasn't been able to fulfil that dream, and can't get another job because there are no other jobs available in and around the council estate where she lives.

So she wipes old men's bums as they call her expletives. Still, she says, it's better than being on the dole – despite the fact she's paid a few pence above the minimum wage.

One of her co-workers hates it too. His name is Jim.

Unlike my niece, he isn't young, and unlike my niece, he didn't play with dolls when he was little (or am I being presumptuous? Perhaps he did, although at 40-plus I kinda doubt it). But like my niece, he does his job because, after being made redundant after his toolmaking factory closed down, he can't find anything else.

Now, of course, there are many MANY people who go into caring because they are genuinely caring people. They love what they do, and the people whose lives they make infinitely better. And it may well be that these care workers – yes, overwhelmingly women (and a hell of a lot of those women from other countries, I might add) – played with dolls when they were little.

But is getting our sons to play with dolls, too, the answer to the care worker crisis?

I'm just taking a stab in the dark here but wouldn't a better solution be better pay, more appreciation, an increase in staff numbers, a clampdown on profiteering residential care home owners who cut their costs to the bone to pay for their second homes in the south of France?

But all that aside, why on earth does Jo Swinson think boys are less caring in the first place?

It may well be true, for example, that most crimes of violence are committed by men, but the numbers of women involved in violence is increasing.

Is this rise in female aggression a result of them not having played with dolls when they were little?

Unfortunately, there is no statistical evidence to prove it one way or the other, but I suspect there might be other factors at play, you know, like the general breakdown in morality across the whole of society coupled with feckless parents, an under-resourced education system and in-yer-face celebrity role models.

No, what Ms Swinson has done is pluck out of the air some random solution for the under representation of men in caring professions: get little boys to play with dolls. That'll do it. Sorted.

You might agree with her. You may be the mum or dad of only boys and are on the Earning Learning Centre website right now buying Cuddly Caitlin or Giggling Luke.

But if you are that kind of parent, it is very, very unlikely that, when they're teenagers - you will want your sons – or daughters, for that matter – to get a job wiping the bottoms of women like my dearly missed mum, or to be called a c*** by old men like the one who now lives in the room where she died.

Because that wasn't what my mum wanted for her granddaughter. But if it's what career politician Jo Swinson wants for her little Andrew, then let her get the dolls out.

As they say, somebody's got to do it.

PS. A friend's 14-year-old daughter still has her dolls at the end of her bed. She wants to be an engineer when she leaves school.

PPS. Ms Swinson: Stop obsessing about dolls and gender stereo-typing and telling us parents how to raise our kids. We know what we're doing. Let us do it – and put more resources into the care system.

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