When I grow up …

‘When I grow up I’m going to be a doctor who fixes people with cancer.’ This from the mouth of my six year old. And she hasn’t just said it once. She’s come out with it at least weekly for the last couple of months. Yes, I know she’s only six and that she will change her mind and could end up being anything from a plumber to a – god forbid – writer. But as well as being proud that she had such a lovely ambition I was also secretly relieved.

Why? Because I’ve been reading a slew of books and journal articles over the past few months about the idea that girls are growing up too quickly. Much of the reading discusses the supposed divide that society throws at girls – they are either princesses or hookers. And much of the advice dished out to parents in these books and articles is that letting young girls watch/play with/read anything with the words ‘Disney Princess’ means your daughter will grow up thinking that all she’s good for is washing up a pile of dishes while she waits for her prince to come.

I have read these books with a certain amount of skepticism. Surely it’s not that simple: Disney Princess at playtime = Passive and helpless daughter. Of course I would like more for my daughter than that. Of course she plays with Disney Princess toys, books, games, clothes – the list goes on. But she plays with, reads and wears many other things too.

As a mother, I can’t help but stop and think when I read things about raising children. What if, I question myself, Disney Princesses really are as bad for a child as an unlimited supply of red cordial? But, especially after hearing my six-year-old’s fledgling ambition, I know that the books aren’t quite right.

It’s all about balance. Having a Cinderella doll does not mean she will grow up thinking that all she can be is Cinderella. Wearing a Sleeping Beauty T-shirt does not mean she will grow up thinking her only role in life is to win the heart of a princely man. She can read a story about a beautiful princess and still dream of being a doctor who looks after people with cancer because we show her that other stories exist, we let her imagination run free and we discuss her ideas with her as she forms them. I think the problem with these books is that they assume the Disney Princess doll-playing happens in a vacuum with no parent to show the child other ways of being. Of course that would be a problem, if it happened. For now, I’m going to let my daughter keep her Cinderella doll, alongside her Play-doh and her sandpit and her tap-dancing shoes because it’s my job to show her how Cinderella fits into the larger narrative of life – that princesses can be fun, but helping people with cancer is heroic.


  1. Glen Hunting

    I think the trick with these things is to remain vigilant, but without becoming alarmist. A “housewife” (meaning, I suppose, a female maternal figure who also performs domestic duties) is a role to be explored and enacted in childhood just like any other, such as astronauts, firemen/women, brain surgeons and high court judges. To name but a few.

    As a parallel to what you’ve been reading recently, you might like to look into what happened to Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker (who wrote ‘The Colour Purple’) as an example of what can go wrong when reformist zeal lurches into fundamentalism. Walker senior basically disowned Walker junior because she chose to marry and have a child. It’s a bit like a parent getting upset because they find their son or daughter playing House or Mothers and Fathers, only it’s much, much worse. Here’s a link: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2011433/posts

    That said, my inherent conservatism cringes at the idea of bringing children up in the digital age, and YES I KNOW there obvious and wonderful benefits of said same. The whole ‘things were better in my day’ argument is an unfortunate gravitation to the familiar, and lots of us do it, but it is difficult to overcome.

    • Yes, the digital age is a challenge and an inspiration and everything in between. As is where to draw the line between exposing kids to technology, because they will encounter it at school and need to have some preliminary knowledge, versus too much screen time. I always err on the side of caution – perhaps too much – because I’d rather them be role-playing or outside or anywhere other than tapping on an ipad. But you’ve inspired me to write about how to use technology well with kids – maybe for next week’s post.

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