Monday, April 5th, 2010...9:22 pm
No More Neverland?
I can’t tell you when I stopped playing with dolls, but it was later than any other girl I knew. It was a fact I became ashamed of – that I still asked for dolls for Christmas after all of my friends had moved on to make-up and Jon Bon Jovi posters, that I still carried cases of Barbie paraphernalia on summer vacations to play with the only friend who knew and shared my secret. I have specific memories of playing with dolls, of creating lives for them, for us. I could imagine infinite complicated story-lines, relationships, conflicts, resolutions. I could test out life lessons and theories by conversing with my faithful army of friends.
According to NDP, a market research firm, doll sales in the U.S. have declined overall by nearly 20 percent since 2005. And while little girls between the ages of 3 and 5 are still enjoying the land of make believe with their dolls, girls over the age of nine only account for about 18 percent of the dolls sold.
It’s not hard to imagine what 9-year-old girls are doing instead of playing with dolls. They are connected by cell phones, computers and television to all manner of passive entertainment. And this lack of imaginative doll play, says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow is potentially detrimental to their social development.
I imagine all mothers hope their children will enjoy some of the same pastimes that we did – just for the mere fact that we want our own offspring to hold onto the same happy memories those activities gave us. It is more, true, however, that we want them to enjoy some pastime that will help evoke those feelings and teach those lessons, whether it be the very one we had in mind or not. I have always hoped Nora would be a doll girl, like I was. After reading the statistics and the conclusion that the Internet is slowly killing dolls, I started to think about why it is that I have encouraged Nora to love her dolls.
Tonight at the park Ken started to push Nora on the swing. In her usual bossy two-year-old fashion, she requested that he stop and that only I push her. He told her his feelings were hurt and went to sit on another swing. I tried to explain to Nora about feelings (not really a concept for a two-year-old, but it never hurts, I guess). I told her she should say she was sorry to her dad for hurting his feelings. She looked over at him and, very seriously, said, “I feel your feelings, Dad.”
“You must get your empathy from your mother,” he replied, making me laugh.
But really, this is what it is about. Playing with dolls is about feeling – your own real and potential
feelings, and the feelings of others. When I see Nora with Honey (her baby doll), wrapping her in a blanket, telling her over and again that it will be “otay,” explaining naps and the grocery store, asking if she is hungry, taking her for a walk, I get all mushy inside. I see my daughter not just playing, but discovering what the world is about and playing that out for herself in a safe and age-appropriate way. She is a comforter; I know that from watching her with Honey. She is a comedian; I know that from watching her change Fancy Fancy’s diaper and yelling, to get a laugh, “Ooh! Baby’s Poop!” She may not know what feelings are, but I can see in her play that she is already starting to figure it out.
I don’t think it has to be dolls, but I do believe that kids need to exercise their imaginations in ways that help them develop empathy, that help them problem solve their world. Kids need a place to learn to nurture, to reflect the nurturing that they hopefully are being given. Kids need a place to just be kids. A place where they don’t feel the ever-growing pressure to grow up fast, to ponder their future. I did this with the world I created with my dolls. I hope that Nora finds a way to do the same. To give herself the pleasures of true childhood and learn to feel others’ feelings.
What if kids don’t do this? What if girls only interact with screens and type-pads? I’m thinking about girls here not only because of the doll issue, but because of that haunting story of Phoebe Prince. Bullying has to come from a lack of empathy. What if these students could truly put themselves in the place of the child they are tormenting? I, like Atticus Finch, like to believe that the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes is the key to stopping unfair treatment like bullying.
We can’t blame the rise of technology and decline of dolls for bullying; it has been a problem in schools and on playgrounds for far longer than myspace and facebook have been the standard repertoire of tweens and teens. But I wonder what effect this screen time has. What is the effect of not having to ever face someone, but instead insulting them with a keyboard and mouse? What is the effect of 24/7 access to these new forums for bullying? What is the effect of pressuring girls to give up the comforts of childhood before they are ready? What if kids never have a Neverland to imagine returning to?
Watch Nora playing with Fancy Fancy here: