Picking Your Parenting Battles

By Marjorie Ingall

Published November 03, 2006, issue of November 03, 2006.
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These days, getting Josie dressed in the morning is approximately as easy and effortless as brokering peace in the Middle East. We are the all-pink, all-the-time channel around here. Last year, I was able to trick her into wearing brown by calling it “chocolate.” This year, not so much. She has this one pink skirt with a giant pink bow on the hip that she’d live in if I let her. It’s too small now; she’s starting to look like she’s auditioning for a “Naughty Coeds” movie.

I tried to buy a replacement (the original skirt is no longer in stores; I have a standing search for it on eBay), but I made the stupid-mommy mistake of thinking that dark pink was as good as light pink. Heaven forefend.

Josie has equally strong opinions about her socks: The busier the better. Dots, stripes, pom-poms — preferably all at once. Then there are the rules about sweaters: Generally they are vile, as they cover up the detailing on her shirts and dresses. She has passionate feelings about pants: They are the devil’s own leg coverings. She has a gigantic pale-pink headband covered with clear sequins; this she wants to wear several times a week. It’s too big, and slides inexorably forward until she looks like a cross between a Larchmont matron and Jordi LaForge on “Star Trek.” But she loves it.

So what do we do? We pick our battles. Josie can wear the too-small skirt around the house. She has a wardrobe of what she calls “lounging outfits” (no, I don’t know how I spawned Auntie Mame) that she’s welcome to wear to dinner at home, but they cannot cross the threshold. I compliment her every time she wears something that isn’t pink, but I don’t ban the color. I let her wear the dorky-looking headband and the clashing socks, and I bite my tongue. I do make her dress warmly enough, even though she feels that layers ruin her “look.” I know she takes off the sweater at school, but at least she’ll get there and back without blue lips. Fortunately, I’m still the wardrobe gatekeeper. I won’t buy clothing made of flimsy, shimmery fabrics (call me crazy, but I think girls should wait until second grade to dress like they’re plying their trade on the West Side Highway) with visible logos (if Old Navy wants me to advertise for them, they’ll have to pay me), or with Barbie or Bratz on them (if Josie wishes to embrace overly sexualized, lobotomized, pouting, dewy femininity, she can look at any number of the glossy magazines Mommy writes for). Fortunately, my daughter and I have found that we can agree on Hanna Andersson clothing, which Grandma Betsy and Grandpa Jordy generously keep us well stocked in. It isn’t cheap, but it’s soft, washes beautifully, is cut nonwhorishly, wears like iron (if you liked it on Josie, you’ll love it on Maxine!) and comes in amusingly crazy psychedelic patterns that appeal to my H.R. Pufnstuf-meets-Frida Kahlo aesthetic but contain, among other colors, pink. Everybody’s happy.

When our kids’ cultural influences were restricted to, well, us, life was easier. I used to read every book and pre-screen TV shows before letting Josie see them. Thanks to our TiVo, she never saw commercials. But eventually, our kids’ worlds open up. Josie discovered the PBS show “Dragon Tales” at my mom’s house. I find it cloying, treacly, annoyingly voiced and hideously animated. But Josie loves it. (Probably precisely because it is so unchallenging, unsuspenseful and reductive. To her it’s soothing, but to us grownups it’s as grating as an attack ad.) Still, it’s not morally objectionable. We talk about why I don’t like it, why I prefer better-written, better-animated, more musically impressive shows, such as “Backyardigans” and “Little Einsteins,” but I haven’t banned it. It’s icky, but not morally objectionable. And I’d never be one of those parents who deny their kids all television. It’s like denying them all refined sugar. If you don’t give your kid tools to make good choices, a grounding in media literacy and in indulging in crap in moderation, how will your kid fare in the big, wide world, where you’re not looming above her, snatching away cookies and remotes?

Josie is certainly attracted to stuff I find ickier than “Dragon Tales.” She fetishizes princesses (she can name all the Disney princesses without ever seeing any of their movies — how does Disney manage this??). My feeling about princesses is more in line with that of the fab socialist hip-hop collective The Coup, as expressed in the group’s song “Wear Clean Draws”: [P]rincesses are evil/How they got all they money was they killed people.” Actually, their dads and granddads did, which in some ways is even worse: Why worship someone who doesn’t even have the power of her own agency? To Josie and to many little girls, playing princesses seems to be about aping the most eyelash-batting, frilly, simpering caricature of girldom… which makes sense, since they’re at an age when they’re exploring the differences between boys and girls and what it means to be female.

So rather than declare our house a No-Princess zone, I try to channel the princess love. We read books, like “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko (Annick Press originally published it in 1980 and has most recently republished it this year), and “The Princess Knight” by Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer (Scholastic, 2001), which show princesses who reject the helpless-maiden stereotype of their species. These princesses are brave, determined, athletic. They decide to become heroes themselves rather than prizes for a male hero. After a birthday trip to Disneyland, Josie became enamored of Tinker Bell, so I got a beautifully illustrated (non-Disney) version of J.M. Barrie’s book for bedtime reading. (Josie’s reaction to seeing the ethereal, Edwardian-looking fairy on the cover: “That’s not Tinker Bell!”) And we can talk about how the book conveys society’s respective expectations for boy and girls. The way I remember it, Tink is a jealous little fairy Paris Hilton, and Wendy is essentially a housewife to the Lost Boys. There are teachable moments there. And yeah, I let Josie be Tinker Bell (the “real” Tinker Bell, aka the Disney version) for Halloween. Picking my battles. (And lest we villanize Disney too much, its most recent animated leading ladies are frequently more empowered than they were in the source material. Ariel is a far better role model — far more thoughtful, curious, humanistic and happy — than her predecessor in Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Little Mermaid.”)

But speaking of caricatured femininity, I’m also a bit uncomfortable with Josie’s love of ballerinas, since it, too, is much more about pink satin and tulle than about the hard work that real ballerinas do. I keep showing her examples of modern dance, hip-hop, flamenco, tap. And Josie is receptive. She was utterly hypnotized by a Busby Berkeley musical. In a few weeks I’ll take her to Elizabeth Streb’s next production; Streb uses catapults, wires, trampolines and physics to turn bodies hurtling violently through space into a form of beauty. And Jo and I frequently shake our groove things all over the living room to Alicia Bridges’s “I Love the Nightlife” — if you just added a disco ball and some poppers, you’d think it was Studio 54. The upshot: I hope she’ll see that dance is a big tent, that there’s more to it than just looking pretty, that it’s a discipline and a good time. And I want her to know that girls with butts and hips still can dance. I want her to keep dancing once those shtetl-tush genes kick in during adolescence. Having a little junk in her trunk is a deal breaker in ballet, but I want her to know she’s graceful and beautiful even if she doesn’t fit the ballet genotype. All that said, she’s currently taking a ballet class at the 14th Street Y. I like that it’s not as serious as some of our local dance schools, that it’s really about play. And I’m not going to deny her this thing she loves now… even though in my heart I hope her passion for her tutu will fade.

Still, there are a few rules I won’t bend on. You have to say “please” and “thank you.” (I recently made Josie write a thank-you note instead of playing Chicken Cha Cha Cha, and she did so… after furiously writing me a letter: I HATE MY MOM. LOVE, JOSIE. It was illustrated with a monster face.) More rules: You have to try one bite before you reject a food. If you hit, you get a timeout. In other ways, well, I’m working on being consistent, but also on figuring out which lines in the sand are immutable and which can shift a little. Life can be as complex as ballet.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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