Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Super Hero and Princess Epidemic

I've been having a fascinating discussion with some of my mom friends about the sudden outbreak of super heros and princesses that has invaded our homes. Having both a son and a daughter, all aspects of pretend play affect our family. After much thought, our preschool has recently decided to implement a dress code of sorts. Children will no longer be allowed to come to school with clothing or other items (lunch boxes, costumes and so forth) that have super heros, princesses or media characters and images (video games, Spiderman, Star Wars etc). Since we don't really buy our children that sort of stuff, this doesn't change a whole lot for me on the surface, however, it may change a great deal how my children feel about themselves and their world. 

We didn't offer television as an option to our kids until they were over three years old. I am not judging anyone because I totally understand why it can be helpful to turn on the TV to be able to get anything done (especially with twins)! We also purposely tried not to introduce Disney princesses or "commercial" toys for as long as possible. My own feeling about this is that it allows children to develop their creativity and their minds more extensively when you don't present them with characters whose roles are already determined. Our kids had no concept of who Batman or Cinderella was, and so would play dress up or pretend in a very different way than they did once those characters were introduced to them. It's not necessarily a terrible thing that this has now happened, but I have noticed the difference in their behavior since this type of play became more prevalent (and more important to them because their friends were doing it). 

I adore both our preschool and its director. She has a very progressive, very child-centered way of approaching things. One of the aspects of the school that we loved most when we first toured was the lack of Disney or Dora or Elmo on the walls; everything there was something that sprang from the children's own imaginations. There are a lot of great parents at our school too, some of whom are totally comfortable with allowing their children to watch movies, television and videos that I wouldn't choose to let my kids see just yet. Some of these parents have been quite upset by this new rule and feel there is nothing wrong with their children wearing their favorite Tinkerbell shirt or carrying a Spiderman lunch box. I take a deep breath, sigh and am amazed at the resistance to this. One of my friends said it best: "A few hours without Super Heros and princesses will not affect these kids with all the paraphernalia. A few hours WITH them IS, however, having a huge impact on your home life".

I have noticed that in the past few months our son has come home more than once talking about "bad guys" and having to "protect himself" or "kill" things.  I do know that he will eventually know what these words really mean and I will have to discuss them with him, but it would be my preference that at this age he wasn't asked to understand those concepts. I think that, perhaps, what parents who feel comfortable exposing their children to various types of movies/stories/videos don't consider is how it much it affects the other children who interact with their kids. Some children are just much more sensitive than others and may not be able to handle knowing about the bad guys these Super Heros fight or even why they are fighting. I have tried, instead, allowing my kids to create their own heros with whatever powers they might imagine and they come up with the wildest things and it is from THEIR imagination so there is no scary imagery I have to combat; Picasso the Super Rabbit was one the other day....he painted the world bright colors and made everyone happy. Not too deep, but the kids had fun.  

Our preschool director wrote:

"...Banning guns and Super Heroes all together is not meeting the children’s needs. Whether at home at or at school, if telling the children “no guns”, they will continue to build them with Lego or to turn any object into a shooting device. We live in a violent society and a world filled with images driven by the media that are scary for young children to process. Even if children have not seen a Super Hero movie or seen anything  comparable to it on TV, they are constantly surrounded by it.  In an ideal world, we would want to shield our children completely from these images, yet this is impossible as it’s everywhere and even built into, I believe, our collective unconscious. This is a phrase Carl Jung coined and I feel fitting to draw attention to when discussing the behavior towards weapons and the biological “need” for boys to play with them. Jung discussed that we have an inherited part of the unconscious that occurs in and is shared by all members of people or race. It is a reservoir of experiences of the human species. Could this be what boys are experiencing? 
We want to figure out what the children need to process by playing like this. One way is through observations and careful conversations filled with questions of what the child is creating with this play. Questions like, “I see you are playing with your friend, what game is this? What kind of powers does your Super Hero have?” Through observations and conversations, we can learn so much about how the children’s needs are being met. Telling a child “not to play” a certain game or with something could be a missed opportunity to look deeper into the feelings and the psyche of the child.  This is the deeper understanding we want to promote. After we have an understanding of this, THEN we can challenge them to a different type of play by redirecting them into something else that can still help them process their feelings and channel their emotions without the shame of making them feel that what they are playing is wrong.
...So we ask; how can we be creative with the children in creating Super Heroes, if the topic arises, and how can we help them to create their own imaginative play outside of the limited,  close ended, and developmentally inappropriate characters that the media have created?  Do we create our own Super Heroes? Do we allow the children creative license to play within the context of processing these emotions without having all the boys being Spiderman or Superman? We do think Super Heroes and the idea of “heroes” in our society is important. That is not what we are trying to avoid. We want to promote imaginative and creative play in which the children can learn and develop rather than imitative play..." 

Although the Super Hero stuff hasn't taken a turn for the worse in our house yet, I am DEEPLY disturbed by the princess problem that has begun. Our daughter, who is not quite 3 1/2, has been telling me she "looks ugly" in some outfit, or that she won't "look pretty" if she can't dress like a princess. It absolutely breaks my heart and I know, in part, that it comes from school. It's not the only place of course, but when she tells me that girls at school have prettier clothes, it makes me wonder what's going on. I know that at this stage she is not really feeling that she, herself, is not pretty; it is more about not having the language to express that she may think a dress she has on is not fancy enough or her clothes are too sporty for the mood she is in....but, for me, the princess issue has a more far-reaching problem than even super heros do. I don't want my daughter feeling that her looks are all that matters, or that growing up to have no goals other than to meet a prince is OK. And yet, it is so hard to avoid. She is a pretty girl and people comment on her looks all the time. Well-meaning friends buy her princess things for her birthday and it's so easy to give in; princess stuff is pretty and not letting her play with it brings on the tantrums!

Again, our preschool director writes:
"...In presenting all of these topics, let us not just imagine that this is a boy issue. The media presents itself to girls in a way that is far too mature for them to grasp as well. Girls are developmentally more emotionally mature than boys and process feelings of powerlessness in a different way. Girls are presented with images of women in the media, dolls, fashion; they feel they have to imitate to feel worthy. We comment on their outfits and outward appearances as a way of connection and compliment harmlessly while forgetting to connect with them in a way that is boosting their self esteem on the inside. Instead of gun play, we often see girls being emotionally mean to one another in attempt to appear powerful or in control of their friends. We can hear phrases like: “You can’t play with us.” Again, the root of these behaviors comes from the same place of a child’s perception of being small in a big, huge world and feeling overwhelmed by images in the media targeted at young girls. We want our boys and girls to feel good and strong from the inside".
Like everything else about parenting, the easy way out is only good in the short term. It's a bit like making the choice between fast food and a well-balanced, home cooked meal; one is so much easier and it tastes so good, what's the harm? The other is a pain in the ass to prepare, takes so much time, tastes good, but maybe not as yummy as greasy fries and a burger. Why bother? In the long run, making the hard choices and doing the hard work is how I see us being able to raise the compassionate, bright, self-assured well-adjusted children we know our children are capable of becoming. 

So maybe letting my daughter have that Ariel costume wasn't the end of the world, but if I don't balance it out with showing her that there is so much more to life than pining away for a prince to kiss you, I will have failed my job as mom. If my son wants to be Superman at Halloween, I can live with it; but I also have to show him that there are many ways to feel powerful in this world and that he doesn't have to worry about battling bad guys all the time. Being a parent is hard. Sometimes I think being a kid is a lot harder than we may remember.

How do you feel about your children playing Super Heros or Princess? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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2 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

childrencreativity said...

nice blog about child creativeness! Tnx

Anonymous said...

thanks for the thoughtful, insightful blog, gina!

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