* Parenting

Thoughts on raising a daughter

Part 1 of a series

When I was pregnant with my first child, I decided to find out the sex of my baby. I was told it was a girl. My reaction, unexpectedly, was one of acute anxiety.

Working it through, I realised my reaction was due to the fact that as a woman I had a more immediate sense of what my baby’s life might be like. The risks she would face. The situations in which she might find herself. I had a strong emotional reaction to what this baby would experience in life, as a girl. It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that I had no such reaction when (a few years later) I was told I was expecting a boy. It amazed me that my own experiences as a girl and as a woman in society could have such an impact on my response and relationship to my future child, before it had even arrived.

I ended up finding a therapist to work through this issue. In fact, seeing a therapist during pregnancy turned out to be a wonderful thing to do for a range of reasons. The changes in body, relationships, work and lifestyle (and just about everything else) that are involved in a developing pregnancy and birth of a child are life-altering in the most dramatic way. They also provide a very good reason to be sitting down with a therapist (or a good friend, if a therapist is out of reach) and talking things through, before bubs arrives. But I digress …

As the pregnancy progressed I realized I had an opportunity to help my daughter find her way in the world with a grounding in feminism.

I was uniquely placed, as her mother, to equip her with the tools she would need to survive and thrive in this world. Rather than focus on the problems she would inevitably face, I decided to try and focus on building her skills and making her strong so she could face those problems and overcome them.

Some things I have learned along the way …

One of my guiding principles – no Barbie dolls and no princesses! This might sound like a cliché but I believe this has been of real benefit to my daughter.

Before getting into the implementation, I should say this principle doesn’t just apply to Barbie dolls and princesses. It really applies to anything that perpetuates a stereotypical, idealized view of how a girl should look or is overly focused on appearance rather than inner qualities.

I should also say that I am not intending this piece to be judgemental – many of my closest friends have adopted a different approach on this issue and I understand and respect that.  This article is my way of reflecting on a decision I made, some years ago, and how it has worked so far.

Starting with the practical side of things – what has it meant, in practice? In the first instance, it has meant not buying Barbie dolls or Disney princesses for my daughter. It has meant not letting her watch Barbie TV or Disney princess movies. And yes, it has meant not reading Disney princess books to her. It has extended to some fairy books too – but in the case of fairies I have found it is a book-by-book analysis. Some fairy books are great, focusing on the mythology without undue attention given to the dresses and hair and pretty (white) faces. Others are just awful from a feminist perspective and have gone out the door almost as soon as they’ve come in (usually as a gift).

Occasionally this has created issues, but not as often as you might think. When my daughter was very young a family member bought her a Barbie as a gift for her birthday. My daughter had never seen one before and to her it was one gift among several she was given that day. I thanked the family member for the gift, but after the party it was put away in a cupboard – and soon given away to an op shop. My daughter never asked for it and over time she has barely ever asked about Barbies at all – I am lucky in that regard.

However, when she was about 6 she saw a Barbie TV show on Netflix and started to watch it. I am fairly careful about screen time so I sat down with her to see what the show was like. It was pretty much exactly what I expected and was completely age-inappropriate, so it became the first TV show my daughter and her brother were told they could never watch again! It also became a good talking point with her – I honestly explained why I didn’t want her to watch it, something she has thought about and asked me about over time.

I should say the “no Barbies, no princesses” rule isn’t an absolute rule – if my daughter goes to a friend’s place and happens to watch a Disney princess movie, that is fine. If she asks to wear a princess or fairy dress, she can. But we don’t have the books at home and we don’t ordinarily watch those shows or movies at home. What this has meant, in the case of my children, is that they aren’t particularly interested in those movies or books when they are exposed to them. Which, in my view, is a good thing.

Why? The reasons are many. The focus on “beauty”, and the narrow view of what “beauty” is. The outdated stories. The outdated family structures in the stories. The many stereotypes (handsome prince, wicked stepmother, anyone?). The traditional gender dynamics and the focus on heterosexual romantic love at the exclusion of all else.

Essentially it boils down to this – I want my daughter to fantasise about being something in her life other than a princess in a pretty dress waiting for her Prince Charming. Do I feel I am depriving her of some kind of seminal life experience? God no.

My daughter is now 8 years old. Anyone that meets her is struck by her independent spirit. She has shown a distinct lack of interest in how she looks and seems to have no desire to wear “pretty” clothes or be “pretty”, which is a real gift in this appearance-obsessed world. Interestingly, people often comment on her indifference when it comes to princess-culture, telling me how surprised they are that the Barbie/princess/fairy obsession seems so strong in young girls, despite a world that is increasingly focused on gender equality.

Of course, there is no way of knowing whether my decision to steer her clear of Barbies has actually influenced her development.  I am also aware that the fact a girl is into Barbies and pink dresses does not necessarily tell you anything about what that girl will be like as a teenager or an adult.  My daughter may yet turn into a clothes-obsessed teenager.  She may spend time with a therapist in later life, talking about how her mother’s anti-Barbie sentiment ruined her childhood (although having spoken to her about this article, I think it is a slim possibility!  She seems quite proud to be a non-Barbie girl).  What matters to me is that I feel I have given her every possible chance to be the person she wants to be, without the pervasive influence of the Barbie/princess culture. And that can only be a good thing.