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.