Thursday, April 27, 2006

Princesses, Barbies, and other "Must Haves"

My daughter and I attended a birthday party for a 6 year old a little while back; at this event I had a very interesting conversation with a handful of the parents. It all started when, at the birthday party, my daughter came downstairs dressed up as a princess. Turns out, the birthday girl has a large selection of princess dress-up clothes, and a bunch of the partygoers decided to put them on. Wherever we go, my daughter Beatrice is a magnet for this sort of clothing. Must be the pink and purple lacy outfits I wear most days influence her more than I thought. (Can you read my sarcasm?)

So I was having some nice adult conversation with the other parents (none of whom I'd met before), when my daughter showed up in a flowing pink gown a la Disney Store. I dutifully buttoned the back of the dress for her, and she flew off to be with her friends. I then mentioned to the parents I was chatting with that it bummed me out to no end that Beatrice loves anything princess. I told them of Halloween last year: "Beatrice, what would you like to be for Halloween?" Her reply? "Oh Mommy, can you make me a princess costume?" We reached a compromise on this one: I made her a Queen Bee costume (yellow and black stripes with rhinestone tiara). Okay, I had to go one step further - I promised her that I would make her a fancy tutu once I finished her bee costume. You see, I'll do just about anything to nip this princess crap.

So anyway, back to the birthday party. I don't know why I'm so against princesses, but I am. (Could it be the repressed lifestyles most of them lead? The fact that it's the men in their lives, not themselves, who allow these gals to live happily ever after?) I was chided by a couple of the parents, reminded that dress up time is prime imagination time. Yes, I understand this. But can't she pretend to be something different? Then, out of the blue, one mom suggested to me that I buy Beatrice an American Girl doll. If I wanted to avoid Barbies and princesses, these dolls are the way to go. She then launched into her pitch: these dolls teach history. They each come with their own story, have period clothes - some outfits even come in little girl sizes, so your daughter and her doll can match. These dolls are not cheap, she tells me, but you can buy the clothes on eBay for less.

When I heard this spiel, I was flabbergasted. This was coming from a very PC mother. Next thing I know, other parents started in on their American Girl stories. "Oh, my daughter loves hers - You know, you can go to the store in NY or Chicago, and have the doll's hair done at their special salon..." Are they all secretly American Girl Doll salespeople? Is this some pyramid scheme I don't know about? Shocked, I just listened. Stood there and passively listened.

Here's what I thought: Great. An elitist Barbie. Anatomically correct, I suppose, but just as bad. A fancy name-brand doll, that's expensive. At least most families can afford Barbie. I have a real problem with toys that cost a lot of money, toys that show status. What does that teach our children? So these dolls teach history. History and materialism, if you ask me. Why not take the kids to Sturbridge Village in MA, or Greenfield Village in MI, or the library, for goodness sake, to teach history?? Why do we let our children get caught up in the "collect them all" mentality?

And in retrospect, this is the saddest part of this story: What did I say in response to the sales pitches of the princess clothes and American Girl dolls? Feeling shocked and horrified (no exaggeration), I said nothing. I smiled, and let the conversation end. Rather than stir up some controversy, and get the parents to see my perspective, I stood there mute. Diplomatic to a fault. I really really really need to work on this.


Jayne Martin Dressing said...

I’ve been pondering the American Girl concept for awhile. I admit years ago when my sister bought my niece one of these dolls, I thought she had really gone off the deep end. But the real deep end is the restaurant, salon and day spa for your doll. Now that’s just pushing it. I think that a quality toy may be worth several cheap plastic trade offs, and that if a child is willing to wait and perhaps even work towards the goal of a very important purchase, maybe that teaches them a lesson about the value of things that we own and take care of. I personally can’t bring myself to buy my six year a doll that costs close to $100 bucks with shipping, not just because of the price, but because I would find it in the sandbox having a tea party with the other dolls. I don’t think children this young (and I’m assuming that Stuntbec’s child is not yet school age and probably none of her friends are either) understand the concept of “doll collecting.” Surely, this is something we reserve for older children who can actually read the dang books that go along with it!

My co-worker, however, did buy her daughter one of these dolls, and her daughter saved her own money from cat-sitting to buy some accessories. My co-worker said that she explained to her daughter what a special (and expensive) gift this was, and that getting such a gift would mean that it would be her only gift for Christmas. I think in one of the materialism articles you sent us, there was a mention of putting a special request on a list and coming back to that list months later to discuss whether it is still an important purchase. A friend of mine does this with household purchases such as furniture or new paint. If she still wants an item that is on her list a year later, she decides that it really is a purchase that she needs. I think this works with kids too. My husband has very fond memories of collecting model ships and building them with his father. They were quite expensive at the time, and he did save up his own allowance money to buy them.

The problem is I don’t think we’re teaching our children the value of waiting for anything. Of waiting for the doll that is really meant for a 9-11 year old, of waiting for the special birthday party with friends when your 10, of waiting for a birthday or holiday to receive something new. We overwhelm kids with so much excess that they don’t know if they really want a doll or if they just think they should ask for one because everybody else has one. I don’t agree with the “collect them all” mentality because it is so over the top with the magazines and commercials, but I do think teaching your child to wait for something that is important to them teaches them to understand the value of things in our lives. Do they want that item enough to save for it? Will they still want that item a year from now? In the meantime, stick to the dolls that can freely go from sandbox to bathtub to bed.

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