A royal phenomenon
Is today’s obsession with princesses helping or hurting young girls?
Friday, October 19, 2007
Despite the negative connotations associated with being a princess—an attitude of entitlement, an emphasis on physical beauty, a dependence on finding a happy ending in the form of Prince Charming—Yearwood isn’t concerned.
"I think the princess thing is just a stage that she’s going through," says the father of three from Chicago. "There will be any number of experiences that she’ll go through on her way to becoming the person that she will ultimately be."
Yearwood may not be worried that his daughter will be negatively affected by the princess bug, but there are skeptics who worry what the future holds for tiny princesses.
From shirts, furniture, toys and more emblazoned with Disney’s famed princesses to venues that host only princess-themed birthday parties, girls today can’t fail to notice that princesses are the things to play with, to wear and to pretend to be. Some parents worry that by buying into the trend, they’re teaching their daughters the wrong lessons.
Is today’s princess mania a backlash against feminism, where young girls learn that being damsels in distress generates a happy ending? Or is it a way for girls to boost their confidence by feeling pretty and powerful? If your daughter—or son—buys into the princess culture that permeates the youth circuit, there’s much more going on under that sparkly tiara than meets the eye.
The royal treatment
Young girls admiring princesses is nothing new.
"Back in the day you could wear your mom’s dress and heels and be a princess," says Mary Leopold, a clinical social worker in Northbrook. Now princess paraphernalia lines the walls at The Disney Store and saturates girls’ clothing departments—quite unlike the atmosphere today’s mom experienced as a child—but some things haven’t changed: Princesses are flawless, and if they aren’t born that way, they magically transform. Princesses of color are still rare and practically nonexistent in the classic princess tales.
Leopold’s concerns focus on the strict delineation between good and evil in classic princess tales—a kind, trusting Snow White and her evil, conniving stepmother, for example.
Barbara Risman, head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families, worries about young girls investing too much thought in princesses.
"In our cultural sense, princesses get saved. They aren’t actors as much as they are acted upon," she says. "Little girls who adopt this princess motif are putting themselves at risk of this. Waiting for Prince Charming means you aren’t actively playing a role in your own life."
Risman worries that princesses encourage young girls to act more grown up, by constantly emphasizing a male counterpart and focusing on looks—things that should be far from the mind of a preschooler.
Nancy Bruski, a clinical therapist in Evanston, works closely with children and emphasizes the importance of the imaginative, fantasy play that goes with princess culture.
"Fantasy is a really important piece of young children’s lives, as they picture themselves in different life experiences," Bruski says. To spark your child’s creativity, encourage her to look beyond the princesses she sees in movies and books—where the adventures are already filled in—and to invent her own princesses with unique adventures and personality traits.
The idea of princesses always being traditionally beautiful and thin is also troublesome for some parents.
Cathy Adams, a clinical social worker in Elmhurst and mother of two young girls, suggests introducing your daughter to stories and activities where all types of beauty are appreciated, to widen the scope presented in fairy tales.
"Children need to learn many descriptions of beauty and happiness. Other books, movies, imaginative play and simply discussions with parents can help show them these different paths," she says.
If your daughter is obsessed with all things princess, the cloud you might see has a definite silver lining. Children’s stories such as "The Paperbag Princess" by Robert N. Munsch ($5.95) and "Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?" by Carmela LaVigna Coyle ($15.95) show princesses going against conventional princess behavior. Or, in the case of the latter, princesses are just like you and me—and certainly have no reason to feel entitled or to treat others with disrespect.
For many young girls, princesses have only positive associations. When Leopold’s daughter Sasha, 7, proudly told her mother "My hair is princess hair," Leopold was pleased her daughter was gaining self-esteem from relating her own attributes to those of a fantasy character.
To keep boosting her confidence, encourage your daughter to relate qualities in herself to those present in her favorite princesses, like Jasmine’s independent spirit, Ariel’s curiosity and passion, or Belle’s warm and accepting demeanor to help her see that princesses aren’t just girls who wear pretty dresses and have more power than others.
There’s no need to worry that a young girl’s love of princesses will encourage her to grow up to have a sense of entitlement.
"Girls only feel entitled when their social experiences teach them that they’re entitled," Risman says. Kids learn behavior most consistently from their parents, from how they choose to spend money to how they treat others.
"Kids adopt their identities by learning from the world around them. Your daughter will be a ‘princess’ if you cave in to her demands immediately. If you want her to grow up having to work for what she achieves, you have to interact with her that way."
A little parental restraint can go a long way in preventing your little princess from turning you into her loyal subject.
Dethroning your princess
It’s no secret that girls are nurtured, by family and American society, to be feminine, but parents can fine-tune their daughter’s ideal image of femininity simply by being involved in her play time and development.
"There’s no magic age where young girls are most impressionable. It really starts from day one," Leopold says.
To prevent your daughter from becoming a ‘damsel in distress’ it is up to the parents to provide a model of a woman as a well-rounded person who has a life and personality independent of a man.
Adams advises treating children’s play with balance. Exposing your children to different types of stories, games and experiences is a great way to prevent an obsession with princesses—or any one thing in particular. She doesn’t believe that a penchant for princesses will be harmful in the future if a young girl has other interests and positive role models.
"Any child who only hears one story, or hears that there is only one way to be happy or to be beautiful, won’t have great goals for the future. Parents need to balance out their kids’ play, asking ‘what are your talents and interests?’" says Adams.
Adams seems to have mastered her own advice. Her daughters Jacey, 4, and Camryn, 2, love all things princess related, but Adams and her husband also make equal time for art, music, books and outdoor activities.
"My daughters love the idea of marriage, but they also love the idea of baseball," she says.
Your child’s princess stories and toys can also spark a dialogue about important issues and can be a great avenue for you to instill your values.
"Reading the princess books and watching the movies is a good opportunity to talk about feelings and experiences," Adams says. "The themes of the stories can involve jealousy, anger and even hatred and can lead to a great discussion about choices they can make instead."
Additionally, classic Disney movies often feature single-parent or blended families, which creates opportunities to talk about families that may be different.
While you’re having this conversation, ask her what she admires about princesses. If you don’t like her answer, attempt to steer her toward a new view of princesses. Have a "princess" day where she can dress up while doing good, such as donating clothes to the Salvation Army or giving old toys to the less fortunate. Remind her that good princesses are fair and generous leaders.
If you don’t like the idea of your daughter being indoctrinated into this princess culture, don’t just stand back and let it happen.
Sudipta Paul of Schaumburg, mother of Arushi, 4, suggests a wide range of activities to get young girls off the princess-only track. Cooking together, creating sculptures with clay, making puppet shows or "simply going outside to appreciate all the bright and beautiful creations around us," are some of Paul’s favorite non-princess activities with her daughter.
"I might say that this princess thing is eating my daughter’s head, but when I sit back and watch her play princess I feel overwhelmed and glad," says Paul. "More often I am stunned at her self-esteem. No matter what other people think about her, she still thinks she is a princess."
What readers are saying on ChicagoParent.com
"As a woman/parent of color I am so disappointed in how children’s films, toys, games and images are only marketed to white children. In the case of this princess trend, their idea of diversity is having a blonde princess and a brown-haired princess. For the major company, which shall remain nameless, they currently only have one princess of color and most of the time she is not included in any of their marketing. I have heard rumors that their next princess movie will be about an African-American princess, and if that is true, I can only say that it is about time. Hello? 2007? We all deserve to be equally represented in this world."
"My 2-1/2 old daughter loves to dress up as a fairy and a nurse. She uses her magic wand to grant me wishes and as a nurse would record my temperature. I like to see her occupied and learning new phrases while granting those wishes and new numbers with her make-believe thermometer. As long as she learns and is creative, I wouldn’t mind if she stayed in her outfit all day."
"My 3 1/2-year-old daughter just got over this phase. She wore different princesses dresses every day and even to bed. ... The dress up was of no harm to her or anyone else. This is all part of play and imagination. This is the only time in life she can act this out, and truly feel she is a princess. These are all sweet memories of her toddlerhood. I wouldn’t change a thing."
"On a daily basis my daughter is running around in a tiara, jewels, heels and gowns. The princesses are smart and kind, why wouldn’t I or any other parent want their child to be attracted to that? I want my children to want to be somebody, whether it is a princess, baseball player, train conductor, construction worker, etc. ...So I will enjoy it now and smile every time she runs into the room decked out like the princess that she is."
"I love the princess trend. My daughter will be 4 next month and dresses up almost every day here at home. It’s not indulgent to be a do-it-yourself princess. I don’t see anything wrong with my child being imaginative and feeling pretty. Don’t we all wish we could still believe in fairy tales? By the way, she also loves bugs, so she’s pretty well-rounded!
"Knowing how quickly children grow up, I’ve relished watching my little girls in their princess worlds. Princesses may come and go but the sparkle in a little girl’s eyes is timeless.
"Cinderella and Snow White helped me create enthusiasm for cleaning. Aurora, Ariel and Belle’s prominently placed "big girl" beds helped our princess transition from the crib.
"There are moral issues with princesses, but it’s up to us to encourage strengths (bravery, intelligence, kindness) and downplay weaknesses (superficiality, merchandising, over-dependence on princes)..."
Allison Markowitz is a former Chicago Parent intern and a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.