baby dollIt doesn't take a feminist to recognize dolls are shoved into little girls' arms from day one because they're supposed to bring out their natural "nurturing" abilities. And it's making their mothers crazy.

Before you ask what's wrong with being a nurturer, absolutely nothing. If we had more nurturers in the world, there would be fewer murders, wars and a whole list of violent crimes.

Unfortunately, the doll is so steeped in patriarchy that putting her down may give little girls a chance to be considered more than the little mother, boys a chance to be just as nurturing without being labeled a sissy.

It's a debate that's taking place on many the playground benches -- should I let my son play with dolls? Is it wrong to let my daughter play with dolls?

Calm down, Mom. You're not ruining your son -- or your daughter for that matter. But there is a great option out there:  behold the toy animal. They're equal opportunity toys, and they're there to launch kids into a world of learning to nurture in a way that's second only to a living, breathing animal in their home.

The Stir consulted an expert (aka a 5-year-old armed with a few free samples sent our way plus a few of her own toys thrown into the mix) for a read on which of the animal toys currently hot on the market are actually a hit with the kids:

littlest pet shopLittlest Pet Shop: If you're thinking that old TV show about the animals who lived in a pet shop, you're way off. The millennium version from Hasbro is all about animals in need of a good home -- from the giant Rescue Tails Center where critters can get some extra pampering after being rescued from the streets (or as our expert said: "they can go to the nurse when they're not feeling good.") to the new Blythe "dog walker" series they've debuted this fall to teach kids about one-on-one person to pet responsibilities. Our expert fell in love with these at a (male) friend's house, and has been using gift cards to buy out the line since. They get good use from play dates on both sides of the gender divide, but it is a big line -- expect to be spending once you start.

 

zhu zhu pets halloween Zhu Zhu Pets: The little hamsters that took Christmas by storm in 2009 are still zooming around playrooms, prepping kids for the day they get the real thing (and protecting parents from having to invite a real rodent into the house). That they've grown to stuffed toys and Halloween costumes this year shows these hamsters aren't going away anytime soon. So let them indulge. Just keep them away from your kid's hair (our expert has "layers" in her locks for a reason thanks to a hamster birthday gift).

 

 

Calico CrittersCalico Critters: They're not plush but they're not plastic, making these creatures from "Cloverleaf Corners" hard to categorize as a toy. But that doesn't seem to have stopped kids who have fallen for a line that allows them to pretend their cats, bunnies and other cuddly critters are really people in a small town. Mixing the creatures of the forest kids love but can't touch with their fascination with humanizing animals, Calico Critters have been a hit with our expert who has always like putting clothes on her animals the best. This year's Cozy Cottage starter set was sent to The Stir, and it finally brought some of the love down a level for the younger kids who have eyed their older friends' toys and just wanted to play house their way.

 

Mix PupsMix Pups: Jazwares' newest addition to the market, these small plastic pups (with stuffed counterparts) were sent to The Stir awhile back and just came out of the closet. They are only in Toys R Us at the moment, but they're a more wholesome version of the recent spate of 'dress 'em up" dogs that have flooded the market (and which will NEVER make this list - ahem). Closer in style to the Littlest Pet Shop animals, the line is limited to canines and allows the kids to play dress up like they would with a doll. . . and like you don't let them do with the real dog.

Fur-Real Pets: It started with a giant fake cat that's so freakishly real my cat will try to lick it if it's left on the couch. Now it's that cat, plus a stuffed dog, plus, plus, plus. According to a recent press release, there's even a new hamster version (confirmed on a recent trip to Toys R Us, although not on the storey's website. They look a lot like the Zhu Zhu Pets albeit in more natural color schemes). The kid is in love, but the true advantage to these life-like animals is for the parents -- you can put off getting a real one just a wee bit longer.

These are just the tip of the iceberg -- one 5-year-old's favorites. What are your kids' favorite animal toys?

Images via lara604/Flickr; Amazon; Toys R Us