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.

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Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice…

Male and female gender symbols based upon work...

Male and female gender symbols based upon work by User:Edbrown05 on the English Wikinews project. Original file was/is here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s get one thing straight, I adore my boys – I really adore them but I don’t get them. if I’m perfectly honest, as one of three girls myself, they are like little aliens to me most days. Occasionally I get one of those breakthrough moments when I think I’ve finally understood them and then out of nowhere, one will cross the room and nonchalantly kick his brother for no other reason – that I can fathom – than he can.  I know what you’re thinking – there really isn’t very much to understand: boys are not complex.  There is a lot of truth in this and I have lived the last 9 years of my life according to the maxim that boys are very much like dogs: feed them, water them and exercise them and all will be well with the world.

My two boys are very different in character but they also share common characteristics: the ability to wind the other up incessantly and the ability to wrestle any time, any place (preferably in a supermarket aisle in front of a tutting crowd of people without children and smug MOGs (Mothers of Girls).  For a while I put this insatiable desire to be in physical contact with each other in some way 24/7 (usually in some painful-looking, totally unnatural wrestling hold) down to watching too much TV and particularly the ghastly WWE wrestling to which my elder son appears addicted (no, before you ask, I don’t let him watch it, but he’s clever, he’s cunning and he seems to find a way to outwit me…), but I don’t think this is the case.  This is just the nature of boys.  For the first five years of motherhood, I watched my boys with a growing sense of horror – what had I created?  Rough and Tumble, they call it, no **** – that’s putting it mildly.  Sometimes I can barely bear to watch and I am constantly amazed that they never seem to really hurt each other (well, not too badly). I don’t really intervene much these days, I let them work it out.  I am resigned to the fact that this is how boys operate – it’s King of the Jungle stuff and I am not going to pretend to understand it. The fighting aside, I love my boys totally and I can only hope that the fisticuffs they indulge in now with each other will recede as they mature otherwise I shall be spending an increasing amount of time visiting the local nick.

I have to admit that due to the unruly behaviour of my boys on occasion (NB understatement), I did at times really question my mothering skills.  I had deliberately ignored the Gina Ford route with mine – I realised very early on that I had already failed by her standards by 7am as I had not pulled up the black-out blinds, changed baby, had a shower myself and eaten my toast and marmalade. I didn’t think that feeling a failure so early on every morning would be particularly good for my confidence levels (which we all know are not exactly rocketing in the early days of motherhood). I found myself naturally gravitating to other “MOBs” (Mothers of Boys) because they understood that there was no way my children were going to sit at a table for half an hour, colouring, gluing and sticking (not unless they were able to do all those things to each other or one of my more prized possessions).

Then suddenly three years ago, I found myself with one foot in each camp – I had a little girl. Over the last 3 years, it has become obvious – it’s not about nurture (well at least not largely) but it is nature.  I have done nothing to encourage her in any direction different to the boys but she naturally loves pink, plays with dolls, dresses up, watches me put on make-up in a rather disconcertingly fascinated manner and basically behaves in the stereotypical “girl” way. I have to add that at the moment she is proving an awful lot easier than the boys at that age.  Yesterday, she had a playdate and I did absolutely nothing for 2 hours whilst these two adorable little girls dressed up, tottered around in little heels and played “Mummies and Babies” (where’s the Daddy you may well ask?! Is this a sign of the times?).

The biggest relief to me with a foot in each camp is that it is not my mothering skills that are at fault – they are as good or as bad as the next person. No, the simple fact is that boys and girls are fundamentally very different from birth and I would wager that boys are harder work in the first ten years of life (although enormously rewarding too) but I am under no illusions that come the teenage years, all those hours of my little girl watching me put on make-up and tottering around in my shoes is going towards creating the horror of “teenage girl”.  I know at that point I shall probably be  saying to my boys that they were hard work when they were younger but that their sister’s behaviour now is a whole new ball game and I shall be looking back fondly at the days of my “rough and tumble”, uncomplicated boys.  However, for now, there is truth in the old ditty that girls are “Sugar and spice and all things nice” and boys are, well, fabulous, physical and sometimes just a little frustrating!