'Cuz My Mommy Said So

Delta Winds cover 2005Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


'Cuz My Mommy Said So

Rae Ann Tourville-Nelson

You learn very early on as a parent to pick and choose your battles. Some parents may choose free expression over rigid manners. One mother may decide that television is evil and must be destroyed, while another may find that plunking her child in front of the Teletubbies may be her only chance to grab a much needed cup of coffee. Toys and their appropriateness are often at the heart of this battle. For me, the importance of toys isn't about letting Billy play with dolls or chiding Sally for playing with Tonka trucks in the mud. It goes beyond gender and into what morals and lessons we want our children to learn. In Reading and Writing Short Arguments, edited by William Vesterman, there are three short essays making up a section devoted to this very topic: Toys for Tots. The essays involve three parents, like myself, with their own battles to fight and lessons to teach.

"Sex and the Single Doll," by Yona Zeldis McDonough, examines the responsibility of dolls, specifically Barbie, as role models for children. The author offers that she finds herself in a parental minority within her own Brooklyn community. What is it that separates her from her neighbors? Barbie. She first fell in love with Barbie during her childhood in the 1960s and "never stopped loving her" (McDonough 111). Despite negative comments from other mothers in her community and a variety of arguments against Barbie, McDonough stands firm in Barbie's defense. While critics see Barbie as "a bimbo and an airhead," "an insatiable consumer," or an unrealistic model for the female form, she sees her as something more. McDonough sees playing with Barbie as an opportunity for young girls to understand and act out that which they see as being "womanly."

As evidence for her theory, she cites examples from her own childhood. As a young girl she used her playtime with Barbie to help her quantify what she had learned about menstruation. This playtime also allowed her to safely act out her own childish views of sex and sexuality with Barbie and her friends (112). McDonough suggests that the overwhelming objection to the marriage of Barbie and the girls who love them is based on a view that "Barbie is a poor role model for little girls" (112). She refutes this claim first by disagreeing that children are "stupid enough to be shaped by a doll" and again looks to her own childhood for additional ammunition. She states that although she was obsessed with and surrounded by Barbie, it was her own artist mother who truly shaped her worldview and her self-image with regards to what it meant to be a woman.

If McDonough wishes to prove that the nurture factor is the essential key to the development of children, she will find little support in author Robert Atwan. In his essay, "A Meditation on Barbie Dolls," Atwan dissects nature vs. nurture and the roles that toys and gender play in that debate. Like McDonough, Robert Atwan is a parent with a Barbie-household of sorts. In "Meditation," he uses his daughter's apparent dislike for Barbie (as evident by the total obliteration of her Barbie collection) as a doorway into the gender and toy debate. According to Atwan, there are two basic views: "boys and girls are inherently different" (nature) and "we shape their development to encourage certain masculine and feminine characteristics" (nurture) (114-115). In the event that either or both are true, he offers that his daughter may be a "complete anomaly" to these theories. His daughter has shown no particular appreciation for, or attachment to, her Barbies and rather enjoyed mutilating them. We would not expect this if girls are, in fact, "gentle, nurturing creatures." Neither would it seem she was "conditioned" to hold a special place in her heart for dolls, specifically Barbie, even though her mother ensured they were "lavished upon her" (115). He offers that neither nature nor nurture is the only factor that affects our development. He states that "we're all counterexamples in one way or another . . . all of the time" (115). He goes on to suggest that our own "uniqueness" plays as large of a role as nature or nurture in who we are and who we are to become.

In the third and final essay on toys for children, we find an essay entitled "The 'Q' Gene," written by Sara Bird. Bird uses her own experiences as the mother of a son who, as she puts it, has an "arsenal" of violent toys. In recounting an episode in which her son opens fire on a pod of Nature Company dolphins, she introduces us to another aspect of the issue involving toys and children: violent toys and their appropriateness. Bird offers that although she was an activist against the draft in the sixties and a proponent of a "healthier" society (one without white sugar and commercialism), she found herself in an "intellectual pretzel" when it came to a struggle between her feelings about violence and the feeling of security created by violent toys for her son. Bird suggests that this paradigm shift occurred when she realized how small and defenseless children feel in the large world in which they live. She was willing to accept violent toys that would protect her son from "the bad things that [came] in [his] dreams" (117). In an attempt to make sure we understand she does not view the world and violence through rose-colored glasses, she shares that she comes from a military family and understands what went on when they were in active service. She jokingly refers to a "Q" gene, named for the "Kyew, kyew" sound made while firing a toy gun, and that it must have been passed along genetically from her "warrior" parents to her son (118).

This weekend my son dazzled a houseful of guests with his fabulous runway display of princess fashions. To see him in a knee-length white satin dress with a crinoline slip might have made another family jump out of its skin, but not mine. I was brought up to believe that toys, sports, and expression are gender free and guaranteed to all. I had trucks and Barbies. I wore lace dresses and tattered jeans. Mine was an equal opportunity family. By growing up that way, I learned how important it is that everyone have choices and the freedom to live out those choices. That is a key value that I hold and one that I want my children to share.

But aside from larger moral issues, freeing children to play with whatever toys they choose also teaches them important skills for adulthood. I have a friend who is married but does not yet have any children. Her husband has sworn that no son of his will play with dolls. Apparently, the battle he has chosen is a war against girlieness and homosexuality. Although I hardly believe that hiding the dolls from his son will keep either at bay. My two older children, Nick and Sabrina, each have dolls. Not a blue one for Nick and pink one for Sabrina, but one that they looked at, held, and fell in love with. What does this teach them you might ask? It teaches them about nurturing. They have both learned how to hold a baby, how to feed it, and how to change its diaper. This has had a wonderful result. They absolutely adore their new baby brother and love to help me take care of him. But in an effort to ensure masculinity in boys, this life lesson is all too often taught only to girls. In fact, boys are often chastised for playing with dolls. The message they hear is that they are only for girls and that he is somehow less of a boy if he partakes. What this translates to in adulthood is a generation of men who are afraid to care for their own children and miss out on a plethora of childhood moments because somewhere they hear a voice whispering "babies are for girls."

The other point brought up by our readings is the appropriateness of certain toys, namely violent ones. The final essay by Sara Bird affected me more than I expected. I have never allowed guns in my home -- real or toy. I am the kind of mother she mentions in her essay, complete with bumper stickers on my "soccer-mobile" touting my beliefs. But I have to admit that when she talked about her son's fear, I felt a twinge of sympathy for her. I too have found myself in that "intellectual pretzel" a time or two. In fact, her essay was so compelling I almost found myself doubting my own toy policy, but she left out something important. By allowing those violent toys and justifying them as "protection," she is, in fact, reinforcing to her son that violence is an appropriate way to deal with his fears. This is a view that I do not share. My children are no different than her son. They hear things that go bump in the night. They have monsters under the bed and in the closet. But why no arsenal in their room? Because one of the lessons that I want them to learn is that their voice is the most powerful weapon they have. When monsters keep them awake at night, my daughter calmly explains to them that it is time for bed and they cannot stay. When my son is scared that there are ghosts about, he talks to them and suddenly they aren't so scary.

What I am hoping is that they will learn that there are many ways to face their fears without violence. And if I succeed, one day when my daughter decides to race dirt bikes and some boy who never played with dolls tells her she can't, she will raise her voice instead of her fists and explain to him that she can do whatever she wants to do because her mommy said so.

Works Cited

Atwan, Robert. "A Meditation on Barbie Dolls." Reading and Writing Short Arguments. Ed. William Vesterman. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. 114-116.

Bird, Sara. "The Q Gene." Reading and Writing Short Arguments. Ed. William Vesterman. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. 116-119.

McDonough, Yona Zeldis. "Sex and the Single Doll." Reading and Writing Short Arguments. Ed. William Vesterman. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. 111-112.