Walking the line

On Sunday a major tornado came through Minneapolis and devastated several blocks in North Minneapolis neighborhoods. Our south Minneapolis home was blessedly spared, but the pictures and stories have been all over Facebook and the news, and we have friends within blocks of the destruction. At my ECFE class this morning, we were talking about disaster preparedness and how to talk to your kids about these kinds of events. I shared this list of things to do to prepare for a major disaster, and we all nodded our heads and murmured about what a good idea that was and how we all really needed to put some of that stuff in place. And then we talked about how we never had any awareness of stuff like this when we were kids, and was that because there weren’t as many disasters (hi, global warming!) or because our parents were less paranoid than we were or what? And it got me to thinking about how so much of what I think of as good parenting is finding a way to walk the line between anxiety and neglect. I mean, do you have yearly fire drills with your family, because: Safety! Or do you just install smoke alarms and assume that everything will be all right? Because, statistically speaking, of course, it probably WILL be all right. But, you know, I still make my kids wear seat belts and hold my hand when they cross the street.

Of course, this sense of walking a line isn’t limited to safety issues. I have the same sense of precarious balance when it comes to, say, gender issues with my two girls. For a long time, the Hatchling was completely uninterested in all things pink and princessy, for example. I mean, this is the kid who has been, respectively, a ladybug, Yoda, a cowboy, and a tornado for the last four Halloweens. But then she went to preschool. Or maybe it was just turning four, or maybe I let her listen to too many Broadway soundtracks – anyway, whatever the reason, she is now TOTALLY into the whole glitterlicious girl complex. Asked what she wanted for decorations on her 5th birthday cake this year, she said, and I quote, “ponies, unicorns, dolphins, and rainbows,” which also happens to be a comprehensive list of the contents of my 5th grade puffy-sticker album. I’ve talked with friends of mine who have girls the same age, and we’re all in the same quandary. On the one hand: Feminism! Woman power! Realistic body images! Fuck the patriarchy! Etc. But on the other hand, Choice! Support kids for who they are! Embrace multiplicity! Etc. Which is to say, yes, dammit, Barbie makes me fucking uncomfortable on every level, but if that’s where my kid is right now who am I to say that’s wrong?

That strangled sound you’re hearing right about now would be my mother choking on the words “You’re her PARENT, that’s who!” See, when I was growing up, there were lots of things that were off limits in our house for specifically feminist reasons. We weren’t allowed to watch The Flintstones or The Jetsons, for example, because of the problematic way they represented the role of women. (TV in general was both rationed and heavily weighted toward PBS.) And Barbies were RIGHT. OUT. Dolls were OK, and we could – and did – play dress-up Queens and Princesses to our hearts content. Hell, the first book I ever memorized was a little golden book version of Disney’s Cinderella, which ain’t exactly the most feminist story in existence. But the closest I ever got to a Barbie was a Princess Leia doll, who, while pretty stacked, was acceptable because a) she had flat feet like a normal person, and b) hello! Princess Leia is the shit! And I loved that Leia doll, don’t get me wrong, but I also yearned – YEARNED – for a Barbie doll. So while I totally and completely get why they were off limits, and my mom was really good about explaining exactly why she wouldn’t let me get one, I’m also pretty sure that they were way more important to me because they were off limits than they would have been if they hadn’t been forbidden fruit.

I guess what it all comes down to is that we all draw our lines where we’re comfortable drawing them, and if we’re conscientious about morals but also sensitive to cultural pressures, that can result in some arbitrary-ass line-drawings. So in our house, barbies are a non-starter, but the Disney Princess dolls are OK. (I know. Totally irrational.) I’ll let the girls watch Tangled and The Little Mermaid until they have the complete score memorized (with gestures!), but The Biggest Loser will air in my house over my dead, fat body. I’ll talk with them about feminism and self-respect and kindness and empowerment until their eyes roll back in their heads. I will strongly encourage them to read Louisa May Alcott, and I will pitch the mother of all fits if they want to read Ayn Rand. (Or at least if they want to read her uncritically.) I will happily embrace life partners of any race, color, creed, gender or ethnicity, but if they vote Republican I might have an aneurysm. And, of course, I reserve the right to redraw those lines whenever I see fit, because I’m still figuring this parenting tightrope out, dammit, and I might need to reroute myself occasionally.

So how about you? Where do you draw your lines? Does it feel like a tightrope to everyone, or just to those of us with a tendency toward neuroses? Lay it on me, y’all.

7 responses to “Walking the line

  1. It’s just my own controversial take on it, but I stopped worrying about princesses and feminism the minute it became blazingly clear to me that the pink/princess/girly/twirly/glittery jewelry phase is practically innate. I truly feel there is honestly no stopping it, so I allow it in my house and it doesn’t bother me. That’s because the research shows that moms’ attitudes, behaviors, opinions, examples, values, and verbal teachings are way more influential to girls’ development (of all kinds) than anything they see or are exposed to in the culture. I’m not saying it’s fabulous, but it’s a battle I’m not interested in fighting b/c I’m fairly sure things will work out all right.

  2. Isn’t it amazing? At first glance, there are no two points farther apart on the feminism spectrum than your mom and my mom. Yet they both hated Barbie. Who then actually bought those blasted things by the millions?

  3. I’m with you on parental attitudes being more important than playthings, but I’d bet that you still draw the line somewhere with toys. Do J and G get to play with Bratz dolls, for example? All I’m saying is that we all have principles we want our kids to grow up with, and often – maybe even mostly – we have to balance those principles against cultural and commercial forces that are opposed to them. And how we achieve or don’t achieve that balance is probably teaching our kids just as much as the principles we’re trying to uphold in the first place.

  4. Yes, forbidding Barbies was totally a matter of arbitrary-ass line-drawing. Also toy guns. And if I were still in the “Oh honey, no!” phase of parenting I wouldn’t buy those Disney princess outfits either, on account of they commercialize daydreaming in a way that I can’t stand. But somewhere in the line-drawing your values do get transmitted, so you probably don’t have to get it exactly right all the time.

  5. neither barbies nor toy guns were allowed in my house. i don’t like barbies or princesses but no longer flinch over them, but pretend physical violence? totally off-limits. i may be wrong and/or irrational, but i believe gender is fluid, whereas guns? once you’re dead, you’re dead.

    • I get that, but what about non-weapons being used like weapons? Like, using a stick as a pretend gun? Or a swimming noodle as a pretend sword? We don’t have any toy guns in our house, either, though I expect water guns will make an appearance this summer. But with a grampa whose main hobby is guns and target shooting (never hunting) and a dad and cousin who loooooove the video games, I know I’m going to have to think about the issue sooner or later. It’s so damn tricky being parental all the time!

  6. i think violence in general is my boogie-man. weapons of any sort freak me out. i don’t even like yelling. (i know: who woulda thought i’m one of those people who wants everyone to be nice all the time?) i’m going to have to figure out how to get to the principle of not-hurting, i think, and deal with the episodes/toys/weapons of choice as they come up. sigh.