The trouble with princesses

princess play, preschoolers, toddlers, parenting, Susan Cedar
Olivia Downs (2) of Phoenix loves dressing up like a princess. But she enjoys all sorts of other pretend play, too.

Thirty years ago I parented a little girl growing up in Arizona. As I do it again now, I’ve noticed that times have changed for young females.

Many little girls now have mothers who work by choice. They may go to a female pediatrician, wave to a lady police officer and be preached to by a minister or rabbi who looks like mom. Dora the Explorer is active and a terrific problem solver. Barbie may be a veterinarian or a soldier; she comes in several different ethnicities and shades of skin color. There is a television show about a lady president. Both girls and boys have more choices as they look at the world of the adults around them and envision a future for themselves.

That said, there is a disturbing trend in the nature of parenting preschool-age girls that is also different from that earlier time. It is encouraged by the media and toy makers and more and more parents. It is a difference in the nature of the gifts children are given and the play that is encouraged.

Raising an independent, capable child who is happy with herself and enjoying relationships with others is still the goal. But the prevailing culture around little girls is not conducive to the results we hope to have.

Thirty years ago, we gave little girls superwoman costumes and props that encouraged them to play lawyer or doctor — not just secretary, nurse or school teacher. We looked for picture books and stories where little girls were active and smart and growing up strong. We bought tools and encouraged all of our children to learn to saw and hammer, fix things, excel at mathematics and compete in sports. That is how we hoped to free our daughters to dream big and function independently.

Flash forward to the current, inescapable “princess industry.” Little girls wear T-shirts and carry luggage that says “princess.” They are nicknamed “princess” and want that logo on just about everything they own. When they dress up, it’s as princesses. When they get together, they play princess. Play is all about being beautiful and putting on and taking off clothes and accessories. It moves from there to applying pretend make-up and sometimes real glitter, nail polish and hair decorations. Princess play involves parading and dancing for someone to watch.

When they are princesses, girls don’t play ball or hide and seek or pretend to be fire fighters and rescue people. They just look at themselves in the mirror, or show themselves to adults around them. If they play at all, they latch on to a canned plot from a book or video and do not think about or create together their own words and scenarios.

Little girls are seduced by the shimmer and shine, the diaphanous materials and the jewelry — and they want it. It is what they ask for. If they want a bike, they want a princess bike. If they want a backpack or a lunch box, they want a princess one.

Parents have to weigh in on all this and figure out how to honor their daughters’ choices while still promoting healthy values as they grow. It is not helpful to a parent-child relationship to say “no” to what a child legitimately wants to try and experience (barring something dangerous). It’s not helpful to tell a little girl that what she wants is bad, valueless or silly. Children can be trusted as they grow to think about their choices and learn to be savvy consumers if parents give them decision-making opportunities.

Alternatives to princess play

So how do we combat the push to focus little girls on how they look, and how their looks and bodies and beauty compare to someone else’s? How do we create households and play dates that encourage something else beside endless self-adornment?

  • Keep looking for books with active little girls. Carmela LaVigna Coyle addresses the current problem with Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? and Do Princesses Really Kiss Frogs?
  • Look for books and videos that celebrate differences. Todd Parr has a series of books including It’s OK to Be Different that are colorful and freeing.
  • Go camping, picnicking and hiking.
  • Give children the princess apparatus they ask for at appropriate gift times, not all the time, and balance it with toys that encourage creative doing — art materials, tools for playing fix-it, doctor props, cars, trucks and blocks with sets of “people” to go with them.
  • When little girls have play dates together, encourage guests to bring trikes or scooters. Put out a cardboard box to paint like a house (or whatever), set up an art center with stickers and markers, bake cookies or cook a meal together. They can spend some time dressing up in their princess clothes but make sure other things happen.
  • Don’t split up the family with the girls always hanging with mom and the boys with dad.

The princess trend is not all bad. One positive aspect about current princess characters is their diverse ethnicity. Princesses are not just blonde, blue-eyed beauties any more. More children can identify with them and feel beautiful outside the American stereotype. Also, the actual stories of some of them involve brave, active adventure as opposed to the original Disney princesses – Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – who were really just passive victims. At least the current batch has spunk.

We live in a world where women rarely feel great about their bodies or their looks. Therapists see pre-adolescent girls with anorexia and bulimia and beautiful young women save up for cosmetic surgery. Let’s help our girls reach for other characteristics – being interesting, good problem solvers, strong, funny, nice, clever, capable and healthy.

Let’s help them feel good about themselves when they participate in something, or work hard and achieve a goal. Let’s help them get along with others in cooperative projects, not in games where each girl is just trying to be as pretty as the next one.