American Girl dolls: Love 'em or loathe 'em?

Today's Parent editor Nadine Silverthorne weighs the pros and cons of her daughter's new American Girl doll.

American-Girl-doll-look-alikeIn August 2012, while at a conference in NYC, my girlfriends reluctantly dragged me into the American Girl flagship store on 5th Avenue. I had heard rumours about American Girl Place, with its beauty salon, movie theatre and cafe. A spot where you can hang out with your doll all day, while well-intentioned parents and grandparents spend their RRSPs (that’s 401Ks to Americans) on matching figure skating outfits for the child and her doll. Blech.

Then I saw her. A brunette with headgear, kinda like me at 12, but with better skin and, you know, a doll. Suddenly I was back in the bedroom I shared with my little sister in Scarborough, Ontario, playing with dolls for hours. Magic. By the time I reached their upstairs selection of historical dolls (which they’ve since rebranded as BeForever dolls), I’m embarrassed to say I got swept away by the hype.

American-girl-headgearStill, at $150 per doll (!), I wasn’t about to remortgage the house to buy into the empire. So I tucked the idea away in my back pocket. What my daughter didn’t know wouldn’t matter to her.

A year later, we found ourselves at the Hospital for Sick Children, our then-six-year-old daughter diagnosed with a rare disease. While the months that followed involved frightening moments (brain surgery, stroke, recovery), we were lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who supported us and dropped off everything from dinners to toys to keep our spirits up. I am so grateful for those gifts (the meals and the company), and the Furbies, craft kits and such, well they gave my children a bit of respite and distraction from a truly terrifying time.

So when the idea of Santa gifts came up, I was at a loss. What could I give my daughter to outdo all the spoiling she’d received during her recovery? Though I typically prefer giving experiences over things, she wasn’t quite up for outings yet. And if there was a time to go down a road I had previously thought ridiculous, well, this was it. I caved. We settled on a look-alike doll and let American Girl into our lives. It’s a decision I sometimes struggle with. Here’s why:

LOATHE: The price!
A $200 bed?! Come on! I don’t care if it has a trundle and 500-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets so your bestie’s $150 doll can sleep over in style. Who has room for a full-on 1904 ice cream parlour, never mind the $300 price tag? A hairbrush for your doll’s tender plastic locks is a bargain at $8.american-girl-furniture

LOVE: The dolls aren’t skanks
In a world of Bratz, Monster High and Ever After High, where the normal footwear for a teenage zombie or fairy tale doll looks meant for a pole dance and not the playground, American Girl does offer a more wholesome doll experience. I am so sick of the world trying to sexualize my daughter from a young age, and it’s kind of refreshing to give her something to play with that doesn’t want her to be more than just a kid.

LOVE: The historical dolls give a window into historical fiction in a fun way
Did you like learning about Afghanistan by reading The Kite Runner? Consider this the kid version of that. From Rebecca Rubin, the Jewish girl living in New York City tenements in 1914, to Addy Walker, the daughter of a family who escaped slavery in 1864, the BeForever series of dolls offer a window into the past without a tough history lesson. The books and movies are nice complements to these lessons, helping to take your child deeper into the stories of the characters, which she can later act out with her doll. That’s kind of hard to beat.

LOATHE: The catalogues
We had JUST thumbed through the Halloween one (does the doll really need a costume?!) when the holiday one arrived. Gah! “I’ve marked what I want with a check mark,” Lucy let me know, matter-of-factly. Practically the entire catalogue is covered in check marks, including the $300 (USD) 1904 ice cream parlour. This offered, as we say at Today’s Parent, a teachable moment. We chatted about expectations, about wants versus needs, but I still think that the real lesson will come Christmas morning when she gets ONE THING.

American-girl-catalogue-checked

Santa better help with this one

LOVE: It keeps them immersed in imaginative play longer
When I was hemming and hawing about my decision, the overwhelming response from moms was that the dolls kept their kids playing longer. As we stare down the barrel of the tween years with its texting and eye-rolling, this appealed to me. And it’s held true! Having “Julie,” as my “granddaughter” or “other daughter” (depending on the day) is called, means my daughter can sometimes spend an hour or two, dressing, grooming or playing make believe with her. When we brought home an Our Generation camping set, even meant the tween boy in the house spent an afternoon playing with his sister—who can resist miniature toy marshmallows on a stick?

LOVE: The Care & Keeping of You
When the moms in the schoolyard talk about how to introduce the concept of puberty to their daughters, this book inevitably comes up. While some of the sexual health and puberty books I’ve read tend to have some parts that are more teen than tween, The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls doesn’t talk about sex or STIs or rape or anything serious about sexuality (which are all important conversations to have as our daughters get older). Tending to focus on body changes in puberty, I think it’s appropriate for girls ages 8-12. (There do have The Care & Keeping of You 2 for older girls, that’s a bit more in-depth, depending on what you’re looking for from a self-care/puberty/sex ed book.)

LOATHE: The “American” part
Do I want my Canadian daughter to love the idea of being an “American Girl” so much? I mean, I love my American friends and family tons, but do I want my daughter identifying with the word? The competitive Maplelea dolls—”Canadian girl dolls for Canadian girls”—offer a Canadian alternative at a slightly more palatable price, but there’s something about their faces that really creeps my husband out. The slightly open mouth of the American Girl, which exposes two “teeth,” somehow seems more attractive. This being said, I’m a bit smitten with Maplelea’s new Saila doll, an Inuit girl that clearly needs to come live with us and be friends with Julie.

A LITTLE OF BOTH: I’m kind of more obsessed with it than she is
The dolls and their really expensive teensy things are almost too nice for my kid! I live in fear that she will cut her doll’s hair or cover her face in marker (OK, the latter actually happened). When Julie is left in bed for two weeks and we’re told that, “Yeah, she’s just REALLY tired,” I get irrationally upset that Julie is being ignored. When the folks at AG announce the Girl of the Year, I get excited and forward the enewsletter to another AG mom friend so we can secretly squee over email. I’m ridiculously obsessed with 1934-era kid reporter Kit Kitridge. I mean, come on! A miniature camera with Kodak film? A tiny typewriter? I NEED that!

Hmm, maybe I’m the one who should reflect on the “wants versus needs” talk…

Nadine Silverthorne lives in Toronto with her husband, two hilarious kids and one self-entitled cat. She spends her work-week as Content and Products Director for Today’s Parent, dreaming up all the ways she can get our great content to as many parents as possible. When not sharing details of her life from her iPhone or laptop, you can find her doing something with food: reading about it, stuffing her face or devising creative solutions to get her kids to stop calling her healthy cooking “yucky.”

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