Remember the sweet pretend games we used to play when we were kids? Remember baby dolls, and house, and school, and When Will My Husband Return From The War, and Tie Those Ropes Up Tighter, She’s Trying To Get Away?
No? Well, maybe you don’t want to let your kids play with mine, then.
Let me back up.
Maybe you remember when Barbie dolls were the toy that bad parents let their kids play with. I definitely do. Lipsticked, high-heeled Barbie, with her extreme bodily proportions and her cheap, trampy attire, was the wicked, modernist plaything that trained little girls in the ways of eating disorders and prostitution, according to the paranoid lore of the time.
I’m not really sure if my mother believed this, or if she only thought it might possibly be true; or possibly she just didn’t have the budget to buy us Barbies; but we definitely didn’t have any Barbies when I was growing up. And then when I grew up and had my own first several kids, who were all girls, I kept Barbies out of the house, because I was nervous about what would influence their ideas of the world and themselves.
The “Barbie is the devil” argument is extreme, but there’s some truth in it. Kids do internalize what they see, and if they’re constantly told that beauty looks like an impossibly tall, spindly waif who’s 90 percent hair and eyelashes, it certainly could contribute to feelings of inadequacy, and the desire to be thinner.
But it’s harder to make that argument against Barbie today, when today’s Barbies look downright wholesome compared to the vicious faces on so many of the other doll lines out there, which I can only describe as baby sex demons.
Barbie’s expression is a bit vacuous and her legs are still too damn long, but other than that, it’s hard to object. Even the clothes are made better than they used to be; and my kids would just as soon make their own doll gowns out of tissues and duct tape anyway. Anyway, one way or the other, we got worn down, and found less and less energy for worrying about certain things, and now we have eight daughters and something like 700 Barbies.
And this particular doll company really has been doing good things in the field of inclusiveness. Rather than denying the charge that kids are learning from their dolls, they’re embracing it, and a few years ago began producing a line of stylish dolls that sport prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, hearing aids, and braces, and have bald heads or uneven skin tone, or otherwise appear in ways that would have scared me off when I was a kid, whether I saw these things on a doll or on a person — largely because I just didn’t have much exposure to it.
Kids learn to emotionally manage ideas through play, and playing with dolls who look different from them helps them become comfortable with people who look different from them. At least that’s the idea.
But the Mattel company has larger claims than that. They funded a study that says that doll play in general (not just dolls with disabilities or body differences) builds empathy (or at least, more empathy than playing games on a tablet). And this, too, seems like common sense to me.
In the study, they found that, when children spend time playing with dolls, together and singly, it activates regions of the brain associated with social activity, with behavioral control, and processing rewarding events.
The researchers concluded that pretend play — at least, more so than tablet play — supports social processing and empathic reasoning. Even when kids played with dolls solo, rather than with other children, it “allows the rehearsal of social interactions and social perspective taking [and] provides a unique outlet for practicing social and empathic skills.” In other words, playing with dolls teaches kids how to act with each other.
And I believe it. Really, I do. I just wonder where my particular kids fit in.
My kids never once, to my knowledge, acted out a happy domestic scene. If there was a mother with some children, she was always dashing around looking for someone to take the little brats off her hands so she could go out partying with her boyfriend, the crazed leader of a Mexican drug cartel.
Sometimes the father was involved, but he was usually a mute and grief-stricken warrior dealing with the affects of having been betrayed by his own men in the war. Or sometimes the children themselves would be wicked, and would invite each other over for picnics, only to lure their innocent playmates onto what turned out to be sacrificial altars, where they were quickly tied up and disemboweled, their squeaky cries rising up into the night air, their blood running in rivers as a libation for the hungry gods.
Who wants to come study my children? Who wants to figure out what, exactly they are learning with this rehearsal of social interactions? I’m having a hard time classifying it as “practicing empathetic skills” when the end result is that the Midge doll has been snatched bald after a particularly vicious cat fight with Anna of Arendelle, who is meaner than she looks, especially when someone gets between her and her man. And never mind that her man is Luke Skywalker, who is once again naked. Oh Luke.
I don’t know, maybe they really are learning empathy through this kind of play. Maybe if it weren’t for doll play, they’d be even less empathetic than they are now. Maybe the bitter feud that’s been raging between Ariel the mermaid and Princess Organa is all that’s been standing between my daughters and world domination. One never knows.
The moral of this story is, you can worry all you want about what’s going to happen to your kids; and you can do all the studies you like about what’s going to happen to your kids. But in the end, all children are a little bit insane, and many children are almost completely insane.
The things kids do when they’re in a lab and someone is listening in with a microphone and a clipboard is one thing; the things they do when they’re alone in their bedroom with a teeming host of plastic dolls, a head full of nonsense, and no rules whatsoever . . . well, that’s another story entirely. There’s probably nothing you can do about it, so you might as well enjoy the ride.
A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on June 6, 2022.
Photo by form PxHere