That is Amelia, to the left here. My four year old daughter. Actually, four and a half, she would have me tell you. You see, she is working very hard at turning five, because then she will be allowed to chew gum.
I do not have anything against gum. Until all of this came about, I never really thought about gum. I am aware that a four year old, and certainly a four and a half year old, could chew it. Upon occasion I enjoy its minty refreshing taste. One day she asked for a piece and long story short I made the executive decision the gum chewers of our family needed to be five. And now? It has become this thing. This thing that we talk about – between our family, our playgroup mommies, our teenage babysitters who always seem to be chewing gum…
When Amelia turns five, she will be allowed to go out and buy her first pack of mint gum.
Amelia will wait, not because I care at all about gum. But because I care that she thinks it is something big girls do so she must wait until she is a big girl too.
For now, it works. If my daughter thinks something is off limits because it is something reserved for big girls, I’m okay with that. I’m in no rush to grow her.
I just don’t like rushing childhood. There are those few, small, precious, simple years that our kids are our very own without the world crushing down on us. A set of years when the world is an expanse in front of them. A world most preschoolers would have you know they have already figured out and know more about than you do. But they don’t have it all figured out yet, and there is so much soaking in of information during these first several years that I want to make sure the information I provide is the best I can find.
I show the world to my daughter. We adventure. We have items all around our home from the collective world travels of my husband and I. Indiana Jones meets Craftsman Revival. We take the kids frequently to the city for diversity and culture. We Skype with the uncle in Costa Rica, who talks to her in Spanish.
But inside my home, in the nest I have created for my two chicks, I want sweet, simple childhood. For as long as I can have it. Crayons and bubbles and wooden blocks and puzzles and books and dominoes and dinosaurs and other such things of that reflect the open-ended ways of their thinking and imagination.
That’s why Amelia holds a hand-made cloth doll that she picked out, looks like her, and has her name sewn to the back. It came with instructions – I’m sure you see the sticker Amelia is displaying for you. Sweet, simple childhood. For now, it is our world.
And for those that know me, know my company, and know my blog, I’ll fight to keep it that way.
You see, not all toys carry this magic. Most toys come with infuriating twist-tie packaging and batteries and plastic gender-stereotyped colors and a scripted role that influences how the child plays with it. What’s worse, some toys come with versions of beauty and size and worth that mess with a child’s developing sense of self. These toys are sexualized, and for now, maybe forever, they have no place in my home. I don’t buy certain products or allow them as gifts because I see them as harmful and unhealthy for my children. Both my girl child and my boy child. In my home, for now, sexualized toys have no place.
Ironically, when I send my child to school, to learn about the expansive world she is a little member of, she sees Princesses and Tinkerbell and Barbie and Hannah. Everywhere. Because these versions of what it is to be a girl have become something of uniform for all of her little classmates. A couple of her closest girl friends have nothing but this stuff on clothing, backpacks, toys in the home, etc. And that is where my frustrations come in – because there is such a big world out there with so many possibilities, why limit our daughter’s thinking to beauty and fashion and make-up and attracting boys? Although you wouldn’t know it from the toy aisles, I think my daughter deserves more. Deserves better.
She deserves toys that, unlike the Mattel Barbie Fashionista with “Miss Sassy” scrawled across her chest, allow her to be a child. I don’t see much value in dolls like Barbie. They are stereotyped, sexualized (especially when dressed like the one to the left), and carry impossible body proportions. It teaches a girl a very narrow version of womanhood. Sure parents can talk to kids about what pretty means and healthy bodies, but at the end of the day the child is still holding a doll that contradicts all of that. When a girl plays with one, she usually sits, creates a dramatic scene, and after a change of clothes or two, acts out the script in her head. I have a friend who defended her daughters playing with Barbie by saying they create scenes where their Barbies go camping and fight off bears. That’s how my friends and I used to play with Barbies, too. And I remember thinking it was fun. But it could have been with a doll that didn’t look like Barbie and been just as much fun. Or we could have been outside fighting off bears for ourselves.
When my daughter comes across Princesses and Barbie and such at stores or school or friends’ houses, she sometimes enjoys playing with them or will ask for a Princess purse or toothbrush. We can’t avoid it, or live in a bubble, so we usually have the “Why do you think they are fun?” or “How would you play with it?” talk. It 99% of the time ends with Amelia deciding there are other fun things to chose from.
I asked Dr. Logan Levkoff, PhD, more about her thoughts on this after we chatted back and forth on twitter on Friday about this. Her kids are close in age to mine, and what she says makes a lot of sense to me:
I find that working with positive and negative images/representations of gender is really helpful – as both a parent and an educator.
I ask lots of questions of my kids (in this case, my 5 year old son). I ask him why he likes a character, what he thinks he/she does, why they are dressed a certain way, and so on. While it seems like this line of questioning is sophisticated, it lays the groundwork for ongoing critical thinking and media literacy. We are a non stereotypical home; my son’s favorite color is hot pink (even though his best girlfriend told him it was a girl’s color), he has long hair, and simultaneously loves sports and hunting for bugs (there’s a huffpost of mine about this). And he does have a disney princess pool towel. While he used to really like the princesses – he told me recently they were “boring”. When I asked why, he responded, “all they do is get married”. It was validation for me that he could be both entertained and critical.
I completely understand that little girls (and boys) are handed grotesque displays of stereotypes and sexualization. But I would rather my children be able to explore these images and messages at home then to only see them within the context of someone else’s home without the opportunity to think critically about them.
And don’t get me wrong, there are times when my son – or his friends/neighbors – talk about how pretty a character is. When that happens, I show them all different pictures of what I consider pretty. And I challenge them to think of all the other qualities that are more important than “prettiness.”
I think Dr. Levkoff is very smart and very right – we don’t want our kids seeing this stuff within a context that does not allow us to talk to them about it. Kids need our guidance and wisdom to figure out this world and the sometimes crazy things in it. To me, giving a child a doll like the Barbie above just doesn’t make sense. If I saw a real life woman dressed like this she wouldn’t earn my respect and I’d judge what she does for gainful employment. That may not be right or fair, but it is me being honest. You’ll notice in the corner of the packaging, it says for Ages 3+
My daughter is Ages 3+. And for now, maybe forever, we’ll keep talking about it, but we’ll keep it out of our home. I don’t want her girlhood, nor her adulthood, looking like the doll above. I do want it looking like the doll below.
So, for now, dolls like these.
You can find the adorably sweet Sophie & Lili dolls here, there are so many to choose from!
Logan Levkoff, Ph.D. (@loganlevkoff) is a sexologist, sexuality educator, and author of parenting book, “Third Base Ain’t What it Used to Be: What Your Kids are Learning about Sex Today – and How to Teach Them to be Sexually Healthy Adults.”