re-Gift Guide: The Princess Problem (Gifts for 2 & 5 y/o Girls – doll, art supplies, scooter)

We’ve been negligent in getting up Gift Guides this holiday season, owing to an unfortunate surgery and lengthy hospital stay. But, we’re back in action! To provide you with maximum content and inspiration, we’re going to do some “re-Gift Guides,” re-posting/revising some of our favorites from the past, in addition to brand new Gift Guides. As always, if you have a specific question, send it our way! Today we kick off with the re-Gift Guide to purchasing for the princess-loving little girls in your life. How to avoid stereotypes? We have some answers!

Today’s Gift Guide is a little bit different. I’m using the Christmas List from the family I adopted for Christmas to illustrate how you might get around the Princess Problem. What is the Princess Problem? The princess problem is this: you might not want to buy the little girl in your life a princess (or Barbie)-related item, but she says she really, really wants it. What to do? Buy her what she wants? Ignore her wishes, and buy her something else? Call me heartless, but I vote the latter. There are some craftier ways to do that, though, so let’s use this list as an example:
Jenny, age 5. Gift Ideas: 1. Barbie and Barbie’s Horse. 2. Art supplies. 3. Princess Costumes. Jenny is very girly, likes art, books, princesses, and dolls.
Molly, age 2. Gift Ideas: 1. Dolls. 2. Balls. 3. Dressing up in costumes. Molly is a girly tomboy, she likes to draw, play dress up, and she is very active.

I have confess, I pulled this family’s list off the “Giving Tree” at my church when I saw it because I figured most people would get Jenny her Barbie doll and probably a princess costume and I didn’t want that to happen. Don’t forget my long-standing personal and professional obsession with Barbie. Last year I picked a Christmas list because the mom, pregnant at the time, wrote at the bottom “no pink!!” but those instructions were very clear. I wanted to take on Jenny’s list as a challenge to find great gifts that still met what she wanted and would enjoy, without actually being Barbie or princesses. Go ahead and accuse me of being a scrooge.

You tell your child a lot about what you condone with what you buy them. Now, you can’t pretend that just because you don’t buy Barbie, they aren’t playing with Barbie somewhere else, but you can make it clear you don’t believe in spending your money on that. I’ve also written before about how there’s nothing wrong with traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine toys per se, but there is a problem with limiting a child’s access to toys based on their gender. Boys spatial skills and gross motor skills from boy toys and girls learn language and fine motor skills from girl toys – but both boys and girls benefit from both sets of skills. Feeding the requests for extremely stereotyped toys can feed this separation between the skills your child learns, according to the gender-typed toys they play with, and the skills they don’t, from the toys they do not play with. You should feel comfortable taking a stand against Barbie, princesses, or any other extremely gender-typed plaything. If you don’t believe me, see what Peggy Orenstein has to say on the subject. Her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a must read for parents of little girls everywhere.

So, if I didn’t buy Barbie, how did I shop for Jenny’s presents? I have no problem with dolls in general. Dolls promote make-believe play, which serves an important purpose in language development. I chose a baby doll with as gender-fair packaging as possible, and purchased a doctor kit to play pediatrician. (The particular doll I bought at Target, by the Circo company, is not available online. This doll is similar and available in a variety of race/ethnicities, and here is an affordable gender-fair doctor kit). This selection fits with what her mother wrote about her interests, but did not indulge the Barbie request. I actually looked into purchasing Dr. McStuffins, the new African American female doctor with a show on the Disney channel but the Target I was shopping at was sold out. I felt she would also have been an acceptable replacement, being about Barbie’s size and also quite famous (she’s a TV celebrity after all!) but no dice. Anyway, doll – done.

I should already have explained I was buying two presents for each child. So, one present remained for Jenny. Given her interest in art, that was an easy second present. But, even in the child art supplies section, gender stereotypes abound. I looked at some fun art kits, but they were all pretty gender stereotyped. Decorate a purse? No thank you. I went with a tower of crayons and crayola twistables (self-sharpening colored pencils!) and a few sketchbooks. I like Crayola’s products for generally being extremely gender fair in packaging and marketing. With the doll/doctor set and the art supplies, I checked Jenny off the list!

Update 12/10/13: if I was buying for Jenny this year, I’d almost certainly get her a Goldie Blox set, the subject of my dissertation. You can read more about Goldie Blox here and here.

Molly was a little easier to shop for, perhaps because I did not fear disappointing her as much as I did Jenny. Since I had already purchased a doll for Jenny, I did not get the doll on Molly’s list. I decided to take some inspiration from her mother’s description of her as very active. I got one of those ride-on scooters with the lights and singing buttons for her first gift.

For Molly’s second gift, I thought about doing a mix-and-match box of dress-up costumes, especially since both girls were described as enjoying dress-up, but then I would have to go down the princess road again so I decided against it. Instead I stuck with the art theme the girls have in common. Playdough makes some great sets for small hands, and has a great way of working for all levels of fine motor skills. I got Molly a variety pack of playdough.

My hope with these gifts, and any time I purchase gifts for siblings, is that they can play together. I know I fought a lot with my siblings, but we also played together all the time. My younger brother and I were especially possessive of our respective gifts on holidays, but we also played with each other the most. Keeping another sibling in mind when shopping for one child can be a great way to ensure gifts get maximum use – they can be played with by two (or more) children, together, and as hand-me-downs.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of your concerns in ignoring your child’s plea for Barbie or princesses, but it’s as easy as not buying them. You shouldn’t kid yourself that they aren’t getting those messages elsewhere, but you aren’t making it easier, and that is something . Every important adult in a child’s live who doesn’t contribute to gender-typing is making a meaningful difference – and your child will notice as well, even she still claims pink as her favorite color.

(Originally posted December 11, 2012)

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