U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kids, toys, and history

A caveat: I don’t have kids. I do have a niece and three nephews and I spent yesterday with them and their new toys. I’m curious what you all think about the kinds of toys you give to children and the gender distinctions that go with them. When I was thinking about trying for kids a few years ago, I read a ton about gender expectations placed on children. Some of that was about the “princess” trend. Is it a wonderful celebration of femininity? An empowerment of girl decision making (there are few princes in the princess world–it’s all about the girls and their choices)? Or a kind of scary expectation that girls be hyper feminine? Or something in between? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

I got my niece an American girl doll for Christmas. I probably shouldn’t have spent the money, but I had always wanted one as a girl (my uncle got me one of the sets of the books, and I loved them) and it was so exciting to have someone to buy it for. I had a bit of a funny shopping experience with it and in the spirit of Christmas week, I’ll be a bit more informal on the blog and tell it to you. I had to go to Minneapolis to fly out to my parents home in Phoenix. In order to get cheap parking, I had to spend the night at a hotel. I decided to spend the extra few hours I had a the Mall of America. I walked through the doors, passed a few oh-so-typical stores, turned a corner and there in all its maroon glory was the American Girl Store! I quickly texted my mom (she’s been wishing we could get an American girl for my niece as well). I wandered through the store in a daze. The clothes! The history! The clothes! The sweet little girl faces and the crazed look in mom and dad’s eyes as they shopped. I finally decided to get two books, a catalog, and a pair of glasses and tell my niece she could decide which doll she wanted for her birthday. I texted mom that. Then I sent my brother the info and told him I’d love to get my niece a doll, but didn’t feel like I could spend that much on all the boys. He texted back that it was ok not to spend an even amount on them all and I should get the doll if I felt like I had the money. So I went back inside and wandered around again, this with that expectation of purchase that can be so much more intense than the simple gaze of appreciation and longing. I texted back and forth with my mom and she said she really thought my niece would prefer a contemporary doll over a historical doll. I wanted to not make this about me, but about my niece, so I finally thought yes, maybe I should get the contemporary doll (but then do I get a doll that looks like her or one that is a different ethnicity? Given who I am, I preferred the beautiful black dolls, but would she?). I had five minutes to make up my mind before the store closed, so I grabbed a contemporary doll that looked like my niece, exchanged her for the books, and left.

I kept the glasses because one of the reasons I wanted to get a doll was to help my niece become a little more in favor of her own glasses. For whatever reason (I don’t live close enough to spend enough time with her to know), she hates her glasses. I was hoping that seeing a doll wearing glasses would help her see that the could be beautiful too.

The next morning my phone was dead and the nearest phone store was in the Mall of America. I realized, you know, the reason I love the American girl dolls is because of the history and the stories that accompany them. So I took the contemporary doll with me and decided to exchange her for Molly–a little 1940s doll with glasses.

Yesterday afternoon, we arrived with doll, legos, and cars in tow. I was probably more excited than the kids, but also knew I couldn’t push it. She had to like and accept the doll without any pressure from me. But after she unwrapped it, she sat and listened with rapt attention while I read the first chapter of the book. And then later she changed the clothes into the little dress mom and I made for her. I went into her room and was glad to see she had been playing with the doll on her own, but sad to see the glasses flung off. She came in and said, oh, here’s her pink glasses! I was going to put them on with her other dress. Then, while she was telling me how to style Molly’s hair, she picked up the book and started reading it for herself! (She’s only six and it’s a book for an 8 year old). She very carefully put a bookmark in the book when she was done.

Ok, so why am I telling you all this, other than that it is the day after Christmas and this is what I’m thinking about rather than historical scholarship (which I intend to do later today)? I write a lot here about teaching undergraduates about history, but I’m curious what you mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, godparents think about teaching kids about history. Is the American Girl doll a good way to teach history? Is there something similar for boys? Is there any way to escape the incessant urge for girls to be homemakers and boys to be violent in the toy aisles? The comments are open!!

Oh, and here’s one of the articles I read about the princess culture and a feminist mom.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You wrote: “It was so exciting to have someone to buy it for.”

    I mean no offense by this, Lauren, but I think this is the root of the issue. The toys we buy early on for children often reflect our tastes and interests. Then it changes as they develop their own tastes.

    With my kids I have been, and will continue to be in the near future, indirect about inculcating historical appreciation and teaching history. What I have done with my oldest is to try and respond to his questions with appropriate, relevant historical thinking. And this isn’t hard because kids ask a lot of “where did ___X___ come from?” types of questions.

    I always try to say why history/the past is important in relation to what they’re asking—explaining my the past of the person/place/thing *means* something. So for me it’s about teaching history via meaning, not meaning via history.

    How does this relate to toys? Well, that’s indirect. It depends on the toy before us: is it a toy like Legos or Lincoln Logs, which are used to building something else? Or is it a built object, like a car? Or is it a book? So far dolls haven’t been in the equation for me, but stuffed animals have. Dolls will most likely come next with our young daughter (who has already received dolls as toys from her grandparents). The stuffed animal world doesn’t really have a princess culture attached to it. But it does have a comparable level of imaginary play. But no stuffed animals we’ve bought have come with an American-Girl style history component.

    So that’s how my experience relates to what you’re saying. I’m sure I’ll be familiarized with the American Girl scene soon enough—like it or not. I must say, however, that my spouse intensely dislikes the whole line as of now. She hates the phenomenon aspect of it; that it’s trendy. But she may change her mind if our daughter gets interested. And parents inevitably find ways to twist things to their own interests—returning the first point of this comment! – TL

  2. I will totally agree that getting the doll was more about me than about my niece but I feel like I need to explain why I like the American Girl dolls more. They are from in tact families, unlike most girl heroines, they are pretty but not in a hyper sexualized, unachievable way, they are culturally diverse, and their stories put the girl in center. I agree with your wife that over done things are annoying but I’m not in any circles where anyone else likes the American Girl dolls, so I dont have that instinct. I did like them better before Matel bought the company and commercialized them more.

  3. I have nothing profound to say in response to the questions asked but somehow believe my wife’s choice for one of our granddaughter’s toys for Christmas was an intriguing one: a pink dump truck!

  4. My own 6-year-old (girl) loves the American Girls series and I’ve been intrigued to note which she finds most appealing. I’m a modern Americanist; looks like I’m raising an early American enthusiast, as Felicity is her paragon. In a world saturated with problematic portrayals of girls and women, the American Girls books at least involve strong female characters and open the door to other historical conversations. That said, I’ve been careful to separate the historically-themed books from the contemporary dolls as the latter seem like, well, expensive dolls without the redeeming qualities of Molly, Felicity and the rest of the gang. (This has involved quite a lot of strategic catalog hiding.)

    Your question about similar resources for boys is a good one and I’d be curious to hear if others have thoughts on the subject. If my daughter can read “Henry Huggins” or “Homer Price” I have a hard time understanding why a boy can’t read “Meet Kirsten,” but I realize that logic is easier said than enforced. Despite the princess and Barbie culture, I suspect sometimes it’s even harder to attack gender boundaries in the opposite direction.

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