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John Riofrio

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What a Doll's Broken Arm Taught Me About Parenting and Privilege

Posted: 03/10/11 03:26 PM ET

Two days ago, I was sitting in my bedroom working when I heard my youngest daughter, Isabela, literally burst into tears. Since I hadn't heard the tell-tale thud, I figured she hadn't hurt herself, and my first assumption was that her little brother was somehow responsible. I ran into the room expecting to find him staring at me with the pained, guilt-ridden expression he wears when his enthusiasm or passion has taken him in the "wrong direction." Instead, I found my eldest step-daughter trying to console her youngest sister who was, in a word, inconsolable. In one hand, Isabela hugged her doll Josefina and in the other, Isabela clutched Josefina's arm. This, as it turned out, was a medical emergency.

I am not, unfortunately, one of those dads who fix things. I'm good at long walks, coaching soccer, reading bedtime stories and helping with college essays, but I'm terrible at fixing things. I thought about this as Isabela handed me her doll and tried to explain what had happened through the veil of tears and sobs. Our efforts to patch up Josefina led to this humble reflection on raising a daughter in the world we live in.

Isabela inherited Josefina years ago, but it wasn't until recently that the two became inseparable. Kids are funny that way; they don't always conform to your expectations about how or when to play with things. Many, many times I've watched Isabela and her brother, Juan Lorenzo, engrossed in the world they've created and I, touched by the sight, have flopped to the ground to join in only to find that my presence changed the game, turning it into something else. And just as often, the toy we thought would be an "instant classic" was summarily ignored or played with occasionally and even half-heartedly. Sometimes I got the sense that my kids were playing with certain toys for my sake: "See dad, we really do appreciate 'X' toy; you just keep 'em coming."

Josefina represented something else, though. She is a Latina like my daughter, and although Josefina's skin is somewhat darker than Isabela's, both of them are proud of their Latina heritage. Isabela, though born here, will say she is from Ecuador, and when she speaks to Josefina in Spanish, Josefina answers. Josefina was played with occasionally, but often at my suggestion. Using the premise of the Toy Story movies, I would remind Isabela that Josefina was feeling sad that she hadn't been played with in a long time. I was, of course, concerned about an underutilized $100 doll, and I wanted to make sure that "we" were getting our money's worth. Isabela's games, in response to my Toy Story guilt trips, were often short-lived and not particularly enthusiastic. I let it go.

Then, a few weeks ago, Josefina suddenly came to life. Organically, and without my really noticing it, Josefina became a frequent guest at our breakfast table. She'd go through the day with a little dried "stuff" around her chin, satisfied with Isabela's efforts to feed her a breakfast as nutritious and satisfying as her own. And Josefina started appearing at the bus stop, as well, tucked into Isabela's jacket on the six-minute walk to our stop. Like Isabela, Josefina's hair was a mess one day and neatly done up in a ponytail the next. She became Isabela's constant companion in the way that I had always hoped she would. And then her arm popped off.

I was surprised at how hard I took Josefina's seemingly fatal injury. It wasn't just that Isabela was crying; I'm the kind of dad who isn't above telling his kids to "suck it up" when the drama starts, and I'm a full believer in dusting them off and sending them on their way when they take a spill on the playground. But this was different. It mattered in a bigger way, and all I wanted at that moment was to have the skill to put Josefina's arm back on, to make everything better. Instead, I accepted my categorical ineptness at all things "handy" and did the next best thing: I got on the Internet. I was sitting at work when I found out that American Girl Dolls have their own hospital, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I choked up a bit when I did. It's an odd, overly dramatic response, and yet I think there was something important to my reaction. The very existence of a hospital for American Girl Dolls is a kind of resistance to the blatant consumerism that's become a staple of our society. Everything we own seems built to last a few short years. If your coffee maker breaks (tragedy!) you're told that it's going to be much more expensive to fix it than it would be to buy a new one. Same thing goes for your toaster, or your iPod or your cell phone. The things we own are largely disposable because they're designed that way, but they're also disposable because we're not supposed to have them for very long. Socially, we're constructed to want, incessantly, whatever is new. Best Buy has even recently launched an ad campaign centered around our need to own the latest version of something. "Don't worry," they tell us, "if you buy a 3D television and the 4D model comes out, bring back your old, three-month-old TV and we'll give you credit towards the newest, shiniest, most recent model." The rule is simple: "Always upgrade."

America Girl Dolls aren't cheap, in fact you'd be hard-pressed to consider them even affordable. They cost about $100, and fixing a broken one isn't cheap, either. All told, Josefina's surgery is going to cost us about $45 dollars. If you're cynical, you might suggest that $45 is the perfect price. It's much less than the cost of a new American Girl Doll but also probably represents a very tidy profit for the Doll M.D. I don't, however, want to be cynical about this because to me the Doll Hospital represents the notion that objects can still be made that have long-term value. And furthermore, a little girl's (or boy's) doll is meant to be around for a good long while. You shouldn't be able to just go out and "replace" Josefina.

With all these thoughts floating around in my head, it's easy to see why mailing Josefina off to the doll hospital in her cardboard box wasn't just another trip to the post office. I invested emotionally in the process because with it came the realization that I was buying something more for my $45 than a replacement arm for Josefina. I was buying time. Not much, but some. All the recent research suggests that little girls are becoming less and less interested in playing with dolls. Not so long ago girls, on average, played with dolls until they were 12 years old; now, the average age is nine. As my daughter's seventh birthday rounds the corner, the trip to the post office emphasized to me that Josefina's days are numbered. Sooner rather than later, my own daughter is going to be less and less interested in Josefina. The time they spend together, the family life they've created, is going to be replaced with something else and, if what I've seen is true, I don't think it's with something better. Like Best Buy's plea that we continually upgrade, little girls are constantly urged to "grow up." Some have called it the "sassification" of little girls, and the result is nine-year-olds who eschew dolls like Josefina for little "fashionista" dolls like the Bratz collection. Bratz emphasize a kind of sexual maturation; they display an ample concern for being trendy and fashionable all while exposing the kind of thin mid-riff that contributes to a little girls' obsession with their own, failing, body image. Or, for some girls, nine signals the end of all dolls, an end to toys altogether as they are summarily replaced by nail polish and lip gloss, iPods and outings to the mall. Josefina's trip to the hospital represents my own meager effort to offer Isabela just a bit more time to be a little girl, to play house and to upgrade nothing but her own ability to dream and invent.

But there's one odd thing here, too. Josefina also represents privilege. It's not just that we can afford the $45 to patch her up. The privilege I'm referring to is the fact that I live a life, in a location, where my concern for my daughter is reflected by insignificant moments like the breaking of her doll's arms. For many years there was a picture I clipped from the newspaper (remember those?) hung up on our fridge. It was a picture of a three-year-old Iraqi girl surrounded by U.S. soldiers as they investigated her home. She looked up, wide-eyed at the machine guns that flanked her on all sides. It was a stark, troubling, reminder of the privilege, and accident, of birth. I find myself thinking about that little girl now and again, and especially now as I think about my own privilege in having to solve problems like Josefina's arm instead of bigger ones, scarier ones, unsolvable ones. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, it's a lesson I wish we all could take to heart. As the news ripples about the events in Wisconsin and the wars scattered across the globe, it seems categorically unfair that for some parents, like me, the ability to make Isabela's world a better place is as simple as delicately placing a broken doll in a cardboard box. While people like Scott Walker launch attacks on the working middle class in order to pay back debts to a privileged few, it seems to me the perfect moment to stop and reflect on our own privilege. People like Walker and the big business interests he coddles and protects have divorced themselves from the world around them and, in doing so, have forgotten where their own privilege comes from and, more to the point, that, at the very least, our own relative privilege bears with it a responsibility to others, to those with less privilege. Seems a lesson even a doll could understand.