The debate: Should you let your girls play with princess stuff?

Ian and Sonia Mendes face off on the topic of little girls and princesses.

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Photo: iStockphoto

“Yes, you should let your girls play with princess stuff”
Ian Mendes, father of two

I would love it if one of our daughters, who are nine and nearly six, actually grew up to become a princess. I mean, think of all of the fringe benefits: weekends in Monte Carlo, red carpet parties in Cannes, and maybe I could actually afford to attend the Super Bowl instead of watching it in a friend’s basement.

The way I see it, little girls should be free to fantasize about being part of a fairy tale. The last time I checked, we were supposed to promote creativity and imagination in childhood. If a six-year-old wants to dress up like Belle or act like Ariel, we shouldn’t superimpose an adult’s moral guidelines on her playtime. Kids don’t view fairy tales through the same ethical glasses we do, and it’s called playtime because it’s not meant to be dissected and critiqued. Not every decision a child makes at recess will have ramifications on her career path.

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I also think princess culture is unfairly singled out for promoting a shallow lifestyle. Do you honestly think that princesses are the only negative female stereotypes in our society? While you’re at it, you might also want to ban most TV shows, blockbuster movies and glossy magazines from your household. And stay off the Internet, too. The mainstream media is overflowing with portrayals of women that are unsuitable for little girls.

I like to treat princess merchandise using the same guidelines we have for junk food and television. I will allow it into our house, as long as it’s handled the right way. If we start banning things completely, we’re not teaching our children how to thrive in a world full of outside pressures.

As a sports-obsessed father, I’ve tried to get my girls playing baseball and hockey, but they quickly lose interest after a few minutes. They’re more likely to use a hockey stick as a magic wand. But I’m OK with that. If a girl is naturally drawn to a pink, frilly tutu instead of a box of generic Lego, we shouldn’t force them to be gender neutral for the sake of being politically correct.

If you are a strong role model as a parent, then it won’t matter if your daughter plays with princess toys — she’ll be grounded enough to know what is real and what is imaginary.

“No, you should not let your girls play with princess stuff”
Sonia Mendes, mother of two

Kids are total sponges — for better or for worse. That’s a daunting truth for parents, especially in a popular culture that’s obsessed with image. While the princess world is a top-seller for little girls, I try my best to expose my daughters to other role-play toys, books and movies. But it’s becoming harder to shield our children from sophisticated marketing campaigns aimed directly at them. My husband doesn’t feel as strongly about it as I do — he doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. But what lessons take centre stage in a rose-coloured world that’s oversaturated with pretty princesses?

First and foremost, it teaches our daughters that it’s crucial for girls to look good. How many princesses can you think of who are frumpy or struggle with weight issues? They all have long, flowing hair and a perfect figure — which is essential to snag the handsome prince. The biggest goal for a damsel in distress is capturing the attention of a man who will whisk her off to his castle on a white horse.

My husband may think I’m villainizing Belle or reading too deeply into the plot of Cinderella, but as the mother of two impressionable girls, I am very sensitive to the messaging they’re exposed to. A girl’s outward appearance is far too often prioritized over her intelligence and abilities. It starts subtle and it starts young — amid the glittery world of princesses.

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I know that when I was growing up, my toys definitely impacted how I felt about myself. I had blonde hair, and I was a naturally thin kid, but what I really wished for was big boobs, just like my Barbie dolls. I never did get them (today I’m a long-distance runner and am very content with my smaller bust), but I remember vividly how impressionable I was. Cartoon princess bodies are almost as out of proportion as Barbie’s, so I worry we’re setting unrealistic body image expectations for our daughters.

I want my girls to grow up with a strong, positive sense of self — one that’s more than skin deep. I’m trying to teach them that while it’s enjoyable and healthy to feel pretty, it’s only a small element of who they are as unique, valuable and lovable people.

A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline “Should you let your girls play with princess stuff?” p. 154.

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