How to empower the princess-obsessed preschooler

Don't hate the princess, hate the game. One mom goes deep undercover into princess territory to find ways to develop tips to help empower young girls to know what's behind their favorite fictional royalty.

Warren Dillaway/Ashtabula Star Beacon/AP/FILE
Dozens of young girls dance with Disney princesses during the Princess Ball at the Ashtabula County Fairgrounds on Saturday March 22, 2014, in Jefferson, Ohio.

When little girls become princess-obsessed, parents react with a mix of “aww” and shock. Seeing a toddler in a princess gown is enough to make even the most cynical adult swoon and praise her for her adorable beauty.

But when that same little princess refuses to get dressed for preschool in mid-winter because, she tantrums in a heap of tears, “Princesses don’t wear sleeeeeeeeves!”—well, some parents wish their girls would have a feminist awakening, and fast.

Sadly, Gloria Steinem is too busy to serve as fairy godmother to our nation’s 10 million preschool girls—so what’s a concerned parent to do? The situation often seems hopeless, as Devorah Blachor’s satirical-prescription-gone-viral for creating a feminist toddler—“Turn Your Princess-Obsessed Toddler Into a Feminist in Eight Easy Steps“—suggests.

So many parents are so frustrated by the grip that princess culture has on their daughters that, as a professor and researcher of girls’ media culture, I decided to research what could be done. I spent two years immersed in the literature and in fieldwork, interviewing more than 40 parents about what worked for their families. I even went undercover à la Ms. Steinem’s “Playboy Bunny” days, getting a job as a birthday party princess and partying with little girls while dressed as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid on weekends. It was incredibly fun and also yielded a lot of insights (despite having to fend of off the occasional drunken uncle leering down my clamshells, eww).

As I explain in my resulting book, "The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years," there’s no switch you can flip to de-princess a little girl–nor should there be. Princesses are terrific fun for girls, and the newer crop of princesses (like Merida, Rapunzel, Anna, and Elsa) are actually pretty decent role models for our kids.

No, the answer is not to turn our toddlers into little feminist automatons who can quote Naomi Wolf on demand. Rather, it’s to raise children—boys and girls alike—to be critical, media-literate viewers, and it’s absolutely possible to begin this process in the preschool years. If you’re concerned about princess culture devouring your daughter’s identity and delivering nasty stereotypes about what’s appropriate for girls to do, wear, and think, here are some tips:

1. Communicate your family’s values to your child. Studies show that if children don’t know what their parents value—for example, that they believe girls should be more than just pretty, or that it’s important to have friends from different backgrounds, with different interests—children can assume their parents believe the opposite of what they do. (The studies in which innocent little white kids claim that their open-minded, anti-racist parents would never want them to play with black kids are cringe-inducing.) So let your kids know, in age-appropriate terms, what’s important to you. Young children identify with their parents, so clarifying what you value is key.

2. Establish a healthy media diet for your child. Avoid letting her have more than two hours of screen time each day, and make sure that junky TV shows, apps, and movies are countered by educational and prosocial ones. It’s all about balance.

3. Watch and talk about media content with your child. Every now and then, be sure to sit down and watch TV or movies with her. If something happens on screen that aligns with your values, talk back to the screen and offer positive reinforcement in an age-appropriate way. This can be as simple as saying something like, “Wow, I’m glad she spoke up for herself! That was really great.” And if something you disagree with happens, call it out: “Oh, that wasn’t very nice. He shouldn’t have treated her that way.” (No need to call him a tool of the patriarchy! Save that one for a Jezebel thread.)

4. Teach your child about media creation. When kids realize that all media are created by people, and that TV shows are not some benignly neutral window into another part of the world, this can really changes their perspective on the media in a healthy way. With preschoolers, this can be as simple as pointing to the end credits on a movie and saying, “Wow, look at how many people are listed in the credits! Those are the names of people whose job it was to make this movie.” You’re planting seeds that will be useful later on—for example, recognizing that, hey—that character could have acted or looked a different way, but someone decided to create another boring stereotype, instead.

Practicing these techniques won’t effect an instantaneous Cinderella-style transformation on your preschooler—but over time, it will make her media literate. Really! And if you establish healthy patterns of communication with your daughter from an early age, she’s likely to feel comfortable coming to you with whatever problems she faces later on–stuff that’s way more worrisome than a few passively pretty princesses.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Rebecca Hains blogs at rebeccahains.com/blog and the original post shared here can be found here.

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