Last month I read Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderalla Ate my Daughter (here is the review) and I liked it a lot. It left me with many questions as I have no children and most of my friends either have none or they are too small or simply not girls. The only mother of a girl the age of Orenstein’s daughter I could think of was Emma (Book Around the Corner). We decided to do a double post. While she will post her review of the book on her blog, I post her answers to my questions on mine.
My hunch was that although a very accurate portrayal of some topics, Orenstein also depicted many purely American things. I also wanted to know from a mother how she dealt with all the traps and pitfalls that you encounter when raising kids in our society. I enjoyed reading her answers a lot and hope you will be interested as well.
Foreword about Emma
I was born in the 1970s and raised by a feminist mother who loves clothes and by a progressive father who always shared domestic tasks with his wife. So some things seem obvious to me. I have a daughter and a son who will be ten and seven-and-a-half year old in September. I have many friends and colleagues with children around that age. When I say “I” in the answers, I could have said “We” as my husband and I have very few disagreements on education. I also want to add that I haven’t read any parenting book since the ones for babies focusing on pampering, healing red bottoms, handling tooth aches and high fevers. Our only guide-book is our shared values, our common sense and what we think is important for the development of our children. For the rest, we do our best and we know we’ll make mistakes.
Are the Disney Princesses really as important in France as they seem to be in the US?
Yes and no.
Yes they are as important as far as marketing is concerned. You have glasses, notebooks, T-Shirts, towels, etc, all kind of objects with the Disney Princesses printed on them. But for me they are among other “brands” like Nemo, Lightening Queen, Winx Club and Totally Spies.
No they aren’t, as I never witnessed that girls identified with those princesses the way Orenstein describes. There’s one reason for that I think. When I read Orenstein’s book, I noticed that at several occasions she casually mentions that little girls go to school, to a show or to the mall in Disney Princess dresses. I was really shocked. In France, everybody will look at you if your daughter wears such a dress outside when it’s not Carnival. You can’t bring your child to school dressed as a princess or a pirate. Those dresses aren’t regular outfits. They are costumes. I’m not a psychologist but it seems to me it makes the difference between thinking you’re a princess and playing at being a princess. You don’t wear those dresses in your “real” life. The children understand the nuance very well.
Did your daughter go through a phase like this? How did you handle it?
Yes my daughter had a princess phase and she absolutely loved her high heels plastic shoes. I suspect that was because they made noise when she walked just like my high heel shoes do. For me it was more doing like Mom does than imitating a Disney Princess. And I thought it was natural for a girl to identify with her mother. After all, my son sometimes looks at his legs trying to detect if hair is growing so that he can have hairy legs like Dad.
She also had several princess dresses (according to her size) but she never thought she was a princess. It was clearly a game. So we let her play.
Later, a feminist friend of mine got her a pirate costume. She chose to wear it for Carnival at school and she didn’t mention any disagreeable comment from other kids. This year she had a witch costume. I’m not sure but I think I remember a note from school saying something like “Carnival will be on (date). The children can be dressed in costume. Please, no princess dresses”.
Did you think it was harmful as it was focusing too much on beauty and appearance?
I don’t think it was harmful for her. I think it focuses too much on beauty and appearance but let’s be realistic, that’s how our world works. Plus, children’s stories have always focused on beauty for girls. When I was little, I didn’t have Disney Princess dresses but I saw Disney films and heard fairy tales. It’s always about a beautiful princess and the prince never falls for her because she’s smart or funny. It’s always because she’s gorgeous. What I mean is that we don’t need Disney to have that model imposed on us.
How about the Bratz Doll? I’ve never seen one but I’m not regularly in toy shops. Would you let your daughter have one if she really wanted it?
My daughter doesn’t have one and never asked for one. I’ve never seen any in other people’s houses. I’m not sure I’d buy one. If I had to decide, I’d balance between the risk of her being apart and the risk of her being exposed to a very sexist toy.
Where do you draw the line and find a balance between – as Orenstein called it – going Amish on her or being too permissive?
I have my idea of what a little girl should not be doing and wearing:
No nail-polish in school but OK during the holidays as long as it is pale.
No make-up except for dressing-up and not to go to parties or outside.
She has curly hair: there is no way I’m going to buy an straigthening iron and do her hair. She’s too young.
No dyed hair
No tattoo even if it’s a children friendly one. (anyway they’re forbidden in school)
I compromised on earrings: OK for long ones if they aren’t too big or too dangerous. She can’t wear them on PE days in school.
No slutty clothes.
The list isn’t exhaustive. So far, it seems that other parents around us have more or less the same rules. So she never had big pressure and never threw a big tantrum. And we’ve never faced major questions. If she asks for a gloss, I say no and that she’s too young. If she wants a T-Shirt I think is vulgar, I say no and explain why. Of course she cries sometimes but that’s life, you can’t have whatever you want.
In the long term, I think that as long as nail polish (for example) is forbidden, it will be transgressive to have some. It will be a victory for her when I eventually say yes, a harmless victory but an important one for her. The more barriers we put now, the more “harmless” barriers she’ll break when she’s a teenager. That’s our bet.
The line is our values. It’s our role to explain our decisions properly so that they don’t appear too unjust. I have to admit we’re lucky we haven’t had problems so far. She seems to choose friends who live by the same kind of rules.
Would you allow sexualized toys and clothes?
Yes for toys because she has two or three Barbies. (She’s not a huge fan) and no for clothes. (no thongs, net stockings, T-shirts showing belly buttons…) Anyway these clothes aren’t allowed in school.
Did you also notice that your son was more reluctant to play with your daughter’s toys than the other way around?
No I didn’t notice that. Our daughter has never been interested in dolls. She loves Littlest Pet Shops and her brother plays with her. She has a very vivid imagination, she invents stories and games and he really likes it. She plays with cars too with him. They like Legos and Playmobils. They build houses or cars, it depends of the day.
Did your daughter ever report that others attacked her because she wasn’t following the trend or speaking up for herself?
No I’ve never heard of that but there’s always a risk that she didn’t report it. She complains sometimes that we don’t let her watch TV at nights or that she hasn’t seen Twilight or other films we consider are too “adult” for her.
How did you handle the pink phase? Is it even possible to find toys and clothes in other colours?
We waited for the pink phase to end. It’s over now. I wear a lot of pink myself and my husband has pink shirts. I think we’re safe about this.
It’s not that hard to find non-pink toys for girls. When she was little, she had Little People and big Legos. Now she has Littlest Pet Shops or Playmobils. But sure, a Barbie’s car will be pink.
It can be difficult to find cheap non-pink clothes. But it’s easier as she grows up. However, pink isn’t the worst. The worst are the ones with slutty designs or cuts. It was a big thing a few years ago. It seems to improve now.
Are there beauty pageants for little girls in France like in the US?
Yes, there are some but I don’t think they broadcast them on TV or maybe on some obscure cable TV. That’s the big difference.
Did you find good children’s books with role models that are inspiring?
I never looked for them. They have subscriptions to children’s magazines (Astrapi, Histoires Vraies, I Love English for our daughter and Pirouette for our son). Bayard Presse is very good for children and it’s for boys and girls. We have chosen them because they’re interesting and clever. They’re also neutral. There are really stupid magazines for little girls out there. (with girlie stuff, teaching to girls a model of the woman as a shopping addict, a lover of long chats with friends and also promoting an untimely interest for boys).
Our son has also a subscription to children’s books through school (L’Ecole des Loisirs). They’re of good quality. Otherwise I choose neutral gender books. I refuse to buy Totally Spies or Winx Club or Barbie or Pet Shop Books. These are not books. These are marketing.
About role models. Our daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan. And Hermione Granger is a fantastic model. She’s smart. She befriends with Harry and is not in love with Harry, so friendship with a boy is possible. She’s brave. She doesn’t wonder if what she intends to do will mess up with her hair or not.
Btw, I don’t agree with Orenstein’s analysis of Bella Swan (Twilight)
Do you even buy gender specific toys and how much non-gender toys are available?
My policy has always been: no toy ironing board or vacuum cleaner for her and no guns or cars for him. There’s no way I’m going to buy those stupid girl board games about boyfriends, secrets and supposedly girlie stuff. As far as I know her friends don’t have them either.
An anecdote. My daughter had received a pink car with a small doll in it. She never played with that toy. According to the above mentioned policy, we didn’t rush to buy cars to our son. When he wasn’t even walking, he started to play with the pink car all the time. Then we bought him cars, firemen trucks and “boys” stuff. Not because he was a boy but because he liked to play with them. If he had asked for a doll, he would have had one.
Are there non-gender toys out there? No except for Playmobils, Legos, Kaplas, board games and outside games (balls, bowling) Of course you will find those in gender-marketed colours (pink balls, pink bikes…) but you can find them in neutral colours too.
Did you also notice the Facebook craze and calling 622 girls girlfriends in France?
There’s also a Facebook craze but my daughter is too young. She doesn’t have an account. She never asked for one, her friends don’t have one either. I’m worried about social networks, but I’m not there yet.
A colleague with older children told me he received a guidebook from the collège to explain to parents how to handle Facebook and let the children use it in security. His son can’t accept a new “friend” without his approval. (he has a password). That’s fair.
Someone reported me the kind of bullying Orenstein describes. Mostly gossip that takes huge proportions because it spreads farther and faster. I think it’s really harmful as humiliations during adolescence can leave deep scars.
Anyway, another colleague has a very smart and safe policy: no electronic device in rooms after bed time. Laptops, cell phones, DS and so on sleep in the living-room. Sleep is important for kids and teenagers. I think she’s right. (And of course, children don’t have TVs in their rooms)
Is Hannah Montana loved in France as well?
She is known here too but her series is on Disney Channel. It’s a paid TV and not all families have it. We don’t. My daughter said she saw the series once when we had the channel for free. She said it’s stupid as it only talks about boys and singers. (C’est nul! Was the exact phrase. How lovely to my ears!!)
About Hannah Montana and the like singers: don’t forget that children here don’t understand the lyrics and most of the parents aren’t able to translate them. The impact is different.
I’d like to thank Emma for answering my questions. It gives another dimension to my reading of the book and, I think a better understanding of the differences between the US and Europe.
Don’t forget to visit her page and read her thoughts on the books. She also included interesting photos.