When in Rome…

Villa Borghese gladiator mosaic Español: (obit...

Villa Borghese gladiator mosaic Español: (obitus)// Iaculator// [——]/ Rodan[—] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is “Roman Day” at my eldest’s school.  There is nothing that makes the heart sink further than the thought of dressing up an unwilling gladiator on a Monday morning.  Off he went, gladiator-clad (with school blazer over the top), whinging that his Geox sandals were not very gladiator-like (I explained, patiently, that the alternatives were Crocs or his Hi-tops (which incidentally look utterly ridiculous on my thin-as-a-pin child, great galumphing shoes with two little stick legs but he loves them)  and it was my feeling that the two latter would seem rather too 21st century for Roman Day).  His general mood was not greatly improved when both his brother and friend who comes on the school run with me mocked his “skirt”.  I tried to tell him that for the Scots, men in “skirts” were totally normal and very manly. I don’t think he bought it and I’m pretty sure he is probably now at school wearing his tracksuit trousers under his gladiator skirt – a Roman with an urban edge?

Now for the first time in living memory, the sun is shining so it feels a bit mean-spirited to complain – but I’m afraid I’m going to anyway.  I HATE all these dress-up days at school.  With three children I am perpetually producing a Roman one week, Harry Potter the next, Princess Whatever the following week and, oh yes, world wildlife day – a turtle.  These costume days seem to have been specifically designed to yet again show up my parenting inadequacies.

When the children were younger, I sweated over making costumes myself, being all “Blue Peter” and “double-sided sticky tape” about it – it never worked because I am not creative like that and nor am I competitive enough.  I remember the Easter Bonnet parade (supposedly a parade of hats made by the children) at my children’s old school being more like a Philip Treacy catwalk show – don’t try and tell me that your children had any input in those creations – don’t believe it for a second. I am never going to be able to compete in that arena so my children would turn up in creations which hadn’t been made by them either but had been made by me – whose artistic abilities rival a 3 year old’s – and were therefore disastrous, bordering on pathetic.

Then I had a thunderbolt moment.  One of my sons was a shepherd in his school play and I had to provide the costume. I could feel the familiar sense of dread and panic setting in at yet another test of my creative skills and just while I was musing whether I could get away with one of my husband’s ties as his belt (answer: I could have done in the 70s but not now when school plays are as slick and professional as Broadway productions), it came to me.  Why am I doing this?  What am I trying to prove? My skill sets lie elsewhere so why am I wasting my time on something which always make me feel useless and which the children equate with ritual humiliation as the models for my “creations”?  Buy them…BUY THEM….of course, that’s what I should do.  And I did. Off to the supermarket, £7.99 for full-on shepherd’s outfit including rubber crook – bargain.

I haven’t looked back since then and now my first stop when the inevitable letter arrives home from school about some or other dress-up day is “Amazon” – a couple of clicks and problem solved and not any more expensive than buying all the material and bits and pieces to cobble together myself. Result: my kids are happy because they look normal rather than a poor excuse for a Roman/Harry Potter/Princess Whatever/turtle and I’m happy because I’ve averted a wave of inadequacy. OK so there will probably be 10 other Romans/Harry Potters/Princess Whatever (may be not turtles?) decked in the same garb (because, as I now realise, a lot of people do the same), but I don’t care and they certainly don’t – safety in numbers.

One note of warning.  Last year, I got so carried away and warmed to my theme a little too enthusiastically.  At my son’s old school, they would come dressed as characters from their favourite books on World Book Day. So what did I do on World Book Day at the new school? Sent my son dressed as his favourite character.  What were the other children wearing? School uniform.  Humiliation for my son and another black mark against my parenting record (one of many)….oh well, character-building for all concerned, I’m sure.

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Little Princess Syndrome

Cinderella (Disney character)

Cinderella (Disney character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was a very interesting article in The Times yesterday entitled “Unhappy daughters: how we are raising a troubled generation”.  The article included extracts from a book about to be published , “21st Century Girls”, by Sue Palmer, a former primary school head.

In the book, Sue Palmer writes of three stages of girlhood (as she sees it): From birth (Little Princess Syndrome), From age 8 (The rise of the electronic bedsit), From age 12 (Sex and self-confidence).  It is interesting how all these books on raising girls are suddenly appearing – historically, there seem to have been many more books about raising boys.  Why has this been the case?  Perhaps traditionally boys have been perceived as more “tricky” in the younger stages of life and that problems with girls don’t arise so much until the teenage years. This proliferation of books about raising girls would suggest that there has been a shift and that we should be as concerned about the issues (inherent and imposed) of raising our girls.

The issues raised by the book are far too numerous and complex to discuss in a blog post but the first stage of girlhood – the stage I am currently at with my daughter (and therefore the only one I can really comment on) – the so-called “Little Princess Syndrome” which  the author believes “is now practically endemic across society” –  caused me to stop and think.  Sue Palmer talks about how the aggressive marketing and constant onscreen portrayals of princesses such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to which our daughters are exposed from a very young age have a serious and long-lasting effect on behaviour and create an obsession with appearance from a frighteningly young age.  She goes on to say that “since princesses are traditionally self-obsessed and high-handed, she [daughter] may then start acting like a small, pink potentate.  If, when she starts pre-school, she meets up with other girls who’ve adopted the same persona, the princess culture may begin to threaten parental authority”.

Is this stretching the point too far?  Instinctively I want to say “Yes” – after all, little girls have role-played as princesses for hundreds of years but perhaps she has a valid point.  Everywhere I look, and therefore everywhere my daughter looks, there is “princess” stuff: the TV is constantly spouting it; the toy shops are full of princess regalia; there are “princess” sticker books, “princess” magnetic dolls to dress, ‘princess” secret journals….it is never-ending. Then again, is anyone suggesting that all the Thomas the Tank Engine or Spiderman paraphernalia that is pushed at our young boys is going to create a generation of train-drivers and arachnid obsessed superheroes (and the associated behaviours of both?!).  No, of course not, so what is it about this “princess” pushing that should be any different?

My little girl adores dressing up and indeed most days after pre-school will come home and immediately change into her Sleeping Beauty (current favourite) outfit.  She will clomp around the house in her faux-high heels, wearing a particularly garish tiara, carrying a handbag “just like yours, mummy” (except, to reassure you, I don’t tend to go out with a neon-pink, bejewelled plastic number on an everyday basis).  If Sue Palmer is to be believed, all this pre-occupation with princesses, appearance and dressing up “can effect her capacity to “lose herself” in play of all kinds.”  I don’t really buy into this.  From my limited experience, my daughter is streets ahead of my boys when it comes to creative play and can often be found lost in her imaginary world (admittedly which usually features Sleeping Beauty or the like, but certainly not exclusively).

I shall admit I probably do indulge her “girliness” – although often through sheer attrition – for example, when she has asked me for the millionth time in one afternoon if she can wear nail varnish, I might just find myself saying “OK”!  Am I as bad as the big marketing men and the TV moguls pushing “princess” behaviour on my daughter?

At the heart of this, it seems to me, is that age-old argument of nature vs nurture.  I can only speak personally but right from the second she was born, my daughter has always been so different to her brothers.  If anyone should prove the nature argument, she should.  By rights, she should be a real “tom boy” – with two older brothers, her first experiences of toys were Gordon, Thomas, James, Diesel and the other engines – was she interested? No, not in the slightest. She gravitated towards more stereotypically “female” toys all by herself.  OK, I admit, she wore a lot of pink (I waited a while for a girl!) but she genuinely likes pink things, the boys genuinely do not like pink things – I don’t think I’ve manipulated that. My daughter has always shown a real interest in the way I look, put on make-up, the clothes I choose.  Have I encouraged this? No, not at all – if anything I find it faintly disconcerting having a little person studying me intently while I jam a mascara wand into my eye. It is just the way she is – nature.

It is my responsibility to make sure she grows up with self-confidence and a healthy body-image and I accept that but the worst I think I could be accused of at this age is perhaps indulging some of her more “girly” traits. Yes, sometimes, she can display some “princess” behaviour but I don’t think it is any more than asserting herself as she grows up and finds her place in her world – childhood displays of behaviour common to both sexes.  I don’t disagree with Sue Palmer about the excess of “princess” stuff out there and of course, as parents, we need to be very mindful of all the exposure our children are getting to marketing and consumerism from such a young age.  However, the old adage of “girls will be girls, boys will be boys” is largely true, I think, and if my daughter wants to dress up and be a princess in her creative play, then that’s fine by me and it is my responsibility to ensure her future self-confidence about her appearance is not affected and also to show her who’s boss (for her own good) if she starts to suffer from “little princess syndrome…when I have to start addressing her as HRH or Ma’am, then I shall worry.