Recently I spent a lovely afternoon with a friend in the burbs. While I don’t envy her zip code on the other side of the Holland Tunnel, I certainly covet her playroom–a whole sunny space devoted just to toys and books and dress-up clothes and more toys and more books and a way cool rocking horse.
Don’t even get me started on their backyard.
Thalia of course had the time of her life, thanks in particular to her attentive playroom tour guide, my friend’s oldest daughter. Thalia loved the big girl attention from the 4 1/2 year old who delighted in handing Thalia favorite books, offering up her own stuffed animals for play, or styling her in the appropriate cowgirl hat while demonstrating how to ride Western.
I was so engaged in snapping photos of Thalia on her first rocking horse ride that I nearly missed the question:
“Thalia, want to play Barbies?”
I gasped. Audibly. Rudely.
“Uh…” I stammered. “Uh…” As if she had asked “Thalia, want to play Meth Lab? ” Or, “Thalia want to play Taliban?”
In her 21 months Thalia’s been exposed to trucks and animals, blocks and tricycles, crayons, musical instruments, battery-operated drums that call to you in the night, and the occasional licensed character. Lest you think I’m some snotty hipster mom who only lets my daughter play with rag dolls hand-stitched by global artisans out of organic soy fiber, I’ve got no beef with mass market toys as a whole. In fact, I love Elmo. Love him. His 20 minutes of airtime each morning essentially guarantees 20 minutes of adult activities in the next room. There’s even the one-minute warning, the little song at the end of each episode that should be renamed, Time To Find Your Underwear, Moms and Dads. Yeah, Elmo is just fine by me.
But Barbie? She’s a foreigner in our world of play. Or was.
It’s just a doll, I tried to rationalize as I watched my friend’s daughter sweetly offer up her favorite Barbie to my daughter. A curvy, golden blond, rhinoplastied doll, who, if brought to life, would be the chick complaining loudly from the dressing room next to yours, this size 2 is soooo biiiiig–but still, a doll. Is there really any harm in exposing my daughter to a doll? Especially when I’m sitting right with her, ready to blurt out “A princess is not a valid career choice! Just so you know!” should the need arise.
So why my angst?
This topic has already been discussed to death by people far more up on the issues than I. (Most recently Peggy Orenstein’s great NY Times piece, What’s Wrong With Cinderella, springs to mind.) I don’t know that I have a whole lot to add from an academic standpoint.
From a personal standpoint, I know that dolls are good. That fantasies and creativity and imagination are good and that dolls help facilitate all these things. Do you know I recently found out there is a learning vacuum out there? A learning vacuum! I think that all things being equal, I’d rather Thalia conduct tea parties with a battalion of Barbies than push around dust bunnies while she hums the multiplication tables. I want her to explore all aspects of her femininity, try on mommy’s jewelry, and play Barbie Marries Ken just the same as she plays Grocery Shopping or Ruthless Network Executive. It’s healthy and it’s developmentally appropriate and it’s fine.
I suppose what I don’t want is her looking at her own thighs when she’s 7 and telling me they’re fat (however unlikely if she continues on this path of eating like, one Cheerio a day). I don’t want her feeling bad about her curly notblond hair. I don’t want her thinking that achievement should take a backseat to accessorizing, or that the attention of the Kens and the GI Joes of the world take precedent over all else.
She’s not even two; I just thought I’d have more time before starting the dialogue.
All this ran through my head in the four seconds it took for Thalia to take the Barbie from her new friend’s hands, examine her, then set her down on the floor.
At which point she headed right back to the bookshelf.
That’s my girl.
If you live around New York or are just visiting, check out Time Out NY Kids which has tons of family-friendly activities listed along with great parenting advice and articles. It also happens to be where my posts are syndicated every Monday. Toooooootal coincidence.