Date: September 1, 2010
When my daughter Sally was about to turn 6, she was lobbying hard to get one of the latest editions of Barbie dolls. This was the months-long follow-up to her unsuccessful Christmastime quest. She had sat on the knees of at least three Santas and requested a Brain Surgeon Barbie (or whatever it was).
Sally had also put it in writing. With the help of her big sister Marie, she'd written a letter to the North Pole reminding Santa of her heart's desire. (The letter also included a request for a chicken that lays golden eggs, but that was just a long shot.)
My wife, Betsy, believes in Santa Claus, but back when our daughters were young and impressionable, she did not believe in Barbie. She saw Barbie as a sin against womankind. Impossibly slim, leggy and busty, Barbie is the wrong kind of playmate for a little girl. After spending her childhood with Barbie, no girl is going to be satisfied with her own body. Barbie, of course, does not eat, and her bosom is man-made. These are paths down which we didn't want to send our daughters.
My wife's other charge against Barbie was that she epitomizes the girl who has nothing to offer besides her good looks, and no interests beyond her clothes, makeup and boyfriend. Barbie's horse, dune buggy and medical degree would argue otherwise, but Betsy was unconvinced.
Despite all this disapproval, Barbies would appear in our house as unbidden as mice. One or two Barbies were sure to show up with each birthday party, and other Barbies would visit us on loan from friends.
These Barbies gave our daughters hours of quiet enjoyment. The girls would happily dress and undress them, arrange their hair and march them around. Betsy admitted that Barbies had been a fun part of her own childhood, so she could never quite bring herself to ban them from the house. But we frowned upon them pretty hard and tried to create an unfriendly climate for them.
By occasional remarks, we indicated to the girls that we regarded Barbie as a vain and shallow acquaintance of theirs who is not to be admired or emulated. And sometimes Betsy would round up a few and put them in the attic. (They're still up there somewhere.)
As a father, I've tried to give each of my three daughters the idea that the way she looks is the way she ought to look. This mission was hindered by the presence of all those long-stemmed, buxom Barbies.
Marie, at age 9, was as much a Barbie buff as her sister Sally. Hoping to head off feelings of inadequacy, I told Marie about eating disorders and other body-image problems that befall girls who feel bad about not growing to Barbiesque proportions.
She looked at me with pity. Then, speaking slowly and carefully to penetrate my apparent hysteria, she said: "Dad. Barbie is a plastic toy."
It was well-said, but I disagree.
Fifty years ago, my bland little self was marinating daily in hours and hours of TV Westerns, and I soaked up a set of values that supplemented wonderfully the basics my parents taught me.
Thanks to the unwritten cowboy code, I would never go back on my word, run out on a pard, cheat at cards, bellyache about hardships, shoot buffaloes from a train, abuse people of other races, pick a fight in a saloon, jump a claim, start a stampede, alter a brand, poison a water hole, neglect a hoss, begrudge a few beeves to a starving tribe, back-shoot an enemy, ride with outlaws, bushwhack a traveler, dynamite a trestle, cut a telegraph wire, leave arrows at the scene of a massacre to implicate Indians, burn a barn, ridicule a tenderfoot, smuggle rifles in boxes marked "Bibles," sell rot-gut whiskey to people who won't drink responsibly, seek belated vengeance against Yanks or Rebs, blame a whole tribe for the acts of a few renegades, forget the Alamo, run homesteaders off their land, sneak off from the cavalry to hunt for gold, harm a padre, insult a señorita, disrupt a fiesta, give up on a wild horse that no one can break, disobey a wagon master, taunt a prisoner, hang an innocent man, bring sheep into cattle country, or put my filthy paws on a schoolmarm.
These are the rules I've lived by, and they have served me well.
So what's my point? Kids are so open, they hardly even have skin. So, for better or worse, they'll absorb whatever you tell them, whether you use words or Westerns — or plastic toys.
Rick Epstein can be reached at RickEpstein@yahoo.com.