How to Choose a Preschool That Empowers Your Daughter: Avoiding the Princess Culture
Why The Princess Culture Doesn't Belong at Preschool
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Helen Reddy's anthem of female independence played incessantly on the radio, empowering us female types: “I am woman, hear me roar/In numbers too big to ignore...I am strong/I am invincible/I am woman.” While the lyrics are downright cringe-worthy today, they had a powerful impact in that decade when we fought for "women's lib"— marching for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, championing abortion rights, and celebrating Title 9 with its promise of more athletic opportunities for girls.
At that time, nobody could imagine that one day moms and dads would dress their daughters like Disney princesses and send them off to preschool. But now it's an everyday occurrence and most parents don't think twice about it. They don't see it as a huge step backward, a slap in the face to feminists and all they achieved. As a teacher, mother, and child of the 70s, I know one thing for certain: Disney princesses don't belong at preschool!
This Song Became the Anthem for Women's Liberation in the 1970s
The Princess Culture Turns Girls Into Spectators, Not Participants
Channeling icons of the Women's Liberation Movement — Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Betty Friedan — I know intellectually that princess dresses have no place at preschool and are harmful to the development of young girls. By wearing long gowns and high heels, girls become spectators in the classroom and not full participants. Their clothes keep them from running, climbing, painting, and playing. They become objectified as teachers, parents, and classmates comment on their clothes, hair, makeup, and fingernail polish. A princess culture is created, making the classroom a place where appearances trump actions, superficiality outdoes substance, and narcissism crushes niceness.
The Princess Culture Hurt Girls, Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes and Commercializing Childhood
I recently saw a photo on Facebook of a dad dressed in a prince costume purchasing snacks at the movie theatre for his little daughter, who was dressed as a princess. The caption below it read "best dad ever” and it received thousands of thumbs up in support . Upon seeing this, I had one of those "Stop the planet. I want to get off" moments, realizing a lot of parents are buying into the princess culture both literally and figuratively. They're blind to its negative effects such as perpetuating gender stereotypes and commercializing childhood. They don't appreciate how the princess culture transforms girls into praise junkies who crave another compliment like a druggie wants his next fix. These are the same girls who idolize the Kardashians, want Botox at 17, and believe the worst thing that could ever happen to them is getting fat.
Teachers Should Stop the Princess Culture From Invading Preschool
In Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Peggy Orenstein argues the princess culture is harmful, not innocuous. She believes girls grow up too fast because of it, moving quickly from princess garb to sexy clothes and provocative behavior to keep males interested and compliments coming.
The good news is preschool teachers can easily stop the princess culture from invading their classrooms. They simply need to establish a dress code that's stated clearly and enforced consistently: No party clothes, no costumes, no heels, no flip-flops. Children should wear old play clothes and comfortable shoes so they can paint at the easel, play in the sand, run, jump, climb, and get dirty!
The Princess Culture Spawns Praise Junkies
Teachers should be careful with their words as well — complimenting children for what they do, not how they look, and handing out praise sparingly. I've worked with teachers who lay it on thick with effusive compliments and lavish praise as soon as youngsters enter the room, especially girls: “Oh, you look so cute with your hair in braids. I love your pink sparkle shirt. I wish I had curly hair like you do! You're so cute today in your ballerina skirt.” Even though I knew better, I caught myself gushing, too. It's so easy to fall into that trap. It takes a lot more thought to craft a compliment based on meaningful observation such as: “I saw how you invited her to play with you when she was looking sad. That was a kind thing to do.”
Studies show too much praise is actually harmful. Children who are constantly told how amazing they are — how bright and beautiful, talented and athletic — become easily demoralized when things are difficult. Children who are not praised so much are more motivated to work harder, are more resilient, and are more likely to take on new challenges. They're more likely to appreciate the acknowledgement and believe it's spoken with sincerity.
Girls who arrive at preschool in their princess gowns get seduced by "oohs and ahhs." They realize their looks are what grab attention, not their actions and personalities. Teachers can help by providing a space far removed from superficiality and commercialism—a place where kids can be kids, not royalty. Wise and experienced teachers know Disney princesses at preschool are not a good idea.
Parents Can Treat Their Daughters Like Princesses at Home
As a middle-aged woman who was never “daddy's little princess," there's part of me who envies these girls in their gowns and tiaras. Their parents love and cherish them, let them live out their fantasies, and place them on a pedestal. From a young age, these girls feel special — unlikely to take crap from anyone as they grow older.
It was different in the 70's when I was a girl. Birth control and abortion were still largely taboo. Catholic moms and dads like mine accepted “whatever God gave them” regardless of their inclination to parent or their financial ability to support a large family. My father was a reluctant and resentful father who treated my sister, two brothers, and me all the same — like crap — regardless of gender.
Today, more moms and dads become parents out of choice. Fathers dote on their daughters because they truly value them — taking them on father-daughter dates, bringing them bouquets of flowers, and building up their self-esteem. Yes, at times, it seems dads are over-doing it by fawning over their daughters' looks but so what? That's a first-world problem — right beside over-sized portions at restaurants and crying babies in airplanes.
My father never told me or my sister that we were pretty, and we both battle low self-esteem. I still remember the day 20 years ago when I walked out of a dressing room to show him my wedding dress. Even then — as I stood before him feeling totally vulnerable — he wouldn't utter a compliment. He knew this was the time to do it, but he stubbornly refused. He died unexpectedly two weeks later, never once having said to me: "you look beautiful, I love you, or you're my princess." That's why I get jealous of the girls in their gowns and tiaras who hear those words from their fathers every day.
Final Thoughts: Princesses Don't Belong at Preschool
Both girls and boys need to dress appropriately so they can take part in all the day's activities and not be restricted in any way. Girls need to get recognized for what they do and not how they look. If moms and dads allow their daughters to play princess at home, that's their business. But princesses don't belong at preschool.
A Must-Have for Moms and Dads of Daughters
If you have a daughter, this is the book for you. As a preschool teacher, I've become alarmed at today's girlie-girl culture and its impact on our children. This book confirms my worst fears. As parents and teachers, it's our job to protect our girls from growing up too fast, from becoming sexualized too soon, and from buying into a commercialized culture that says beauty is the path to happiness and success. You'll stop seeing the princess culture as innocuous, start seeing it as dangerous, and want to take action.
Princesses or No Princesses?
Should preschool teachers let girls wear princess gowns to class?
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© 2015 McKenna Meyers