Before my husband and I had children, we were excellent parents. We would tsk parents who allowed their children to play with Gameboys while out to dinner: "Dinner is family time." We would tut parents who allowed their vehicles to become children's home entertainment centers: "Those catatonic children are literally letting the world pass them by." Our children, whilst fictional, would never be amongst these casualties of modern culture.
Then... they arrived. Our beautiful, magical, relentless, exhausting, non-fictional children. That shut us up for good.
We now know that in the never-ending process of actual parenting, choices are not so black and white. Since I am no longer allowed to have uninterrupted conversation with my mate, DVD-infused car rides have become our long walks on the beach. Spongebob and Scooby allow us time to catch up with each other. And, bless the iphone and its myriad apps, for without it we might not ever complete a full dinner out.
Then there's Barbie. She's the one leftover from my pre-actual parenting days that I was determined not to give into.
Try as I may, I couldn't get myself to relax about the long-term impact that playing with her would have on my daughter. Would she be influenced in her body image, fashion choices, and overall self-esteem if "the perfect one" predominated her childhood play? I lost sleep, paced and worried, and watched my daughter for every sign that she was idolizing and, gasp... falling prey to the Barbie myth!
One day my husband pointed out my hypocrisy. He gently reminded me that I know well my son's temperament and emotional intelligence, and that had enabled me to relax about his playing with Star Wars figures, superheroes and the like. My daughter was equally as intelligent and already seemed to have an impressive sense of self at such an early age, so why was I so dead set against Barbie? When she would beg for a Barbie, I would tell her they were for older girls and then desperately try to refocus her on an educational block puzzle, but, to no avail.
At long last I decided to have faith in my daughter, her intelligence, her insatiable curiosity and fantastical imagination. We play lots of different things together but when we're playing Barbie I now use it as a means to have discussions about the many different ways of being "pretty;" from taking good care of one's self, to smiling at others, to extending a hand to help others, we talk about the many things people do that put them in a good light and also help them to feel good about themselves. I often have my character be in search of a comfortable pair of shoes and clothing, and not the supposed perfect set from Barney's. My Barbie is often disappointed that she can't get all her make-up off. I usually make her a veterinarian trying to save animals (my own childhood dream). She doesn't take any crap from Ken... She's a pretty rockin' chick. I am confident that my daughter has loads of positive female role models and that there will be plenty of time for conversations about women's issues as the years roll on by her side.
Parenting has given me so many gifts. The gift of never being certain that there is one right way to do anything has been a profound one. This understanding has influenced my parenting and my well being more than anything else. No longer a young know-it-all, I enjoy a much richer world filled with a color palette that blows black and white out of the water. And, I think my children are enjoying this more, too.
CHECKING IN WITH AN EXPERT
Though I had come to my own personal peace with Barbie, my neurosis still got the better of me. I checked in with Dr. Anne Marie Albano who is the Director of The Colombia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders and also one of the smartest women I know, to put to rest the fear that I was permanently damaging my daughter. Here's what she said:
I long for the days when we used to make our own clothes for Barbie and she "lived" in her carrying case. Now, she has more real estate and better cars than the Gates and Buffets, never mind the clothes. But, I think your approach is common sense and a real good one for your daughter's age (age 5). I like to tell parents to engage with the kids and bring your values into the play. With my step daughters, we made Barbie clothes. We made her different blankets and furniture out of boxes. We played for hours making and arranging this stuff. It's always the same---how the parent gently guides the kids and sets reasonable limits.
I also think that Barbie doesn't have to be the only female doll in the house. There are others to look for of all sorts that are diverse in a lot of ways. So, if a little girl likes dolls, I would introduce her to a variety of dolls in different ways and not that she has to "own" them all, but to be aware of there being more out there than Barbie. One thing is to maybe have a doll party.....have your child invite a couple of friends to bring their favorite dolls to an afternoon tea. The idea is not to judge each others dolls but to play and share for the afternoon.
This piece originally appeared in Moomah, The Magazine. Follow Moomah on Twitter: (@MoomahMagazine), Facebook and Pinterest.