What Barbie and Ken Taught Us About Stereotypes
Editor’s Note: In a post for an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, will be guest blogging once a month. He will be offering different advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can “savor the moment” and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart from this series.
As a pediatrician, I may have been ahead of my time in advocating gender-neutral play for kids. Beginning nearly 25 years ago when our oldest was born and continuing with his sister and brother, we gave our boys ample opportunity to play with dolls and our daughter saw more than her share of toy trucks. Despite our advanced thinking, by the time they were 2, 4, and 6 years old, the kids seemed to have already absorbed society’s subliminal stereotyping, gravitating to the predictable playthings for their gender. Our kids really loved playing together, so most of their play was gender generic: backyard soccer, Beanie Babies, Candy Land, card games, and climbing towers. We gradually reconciled ourselves to the fact that some of their play would never cross gender lines.
As they got a little older, our daughter found girlfriends who loved Barbie dolls as much as she did (there were some non-stop Ken and Barbie days from breakfast to dinner) and the boys played ball — all the time, with each other and with other boys in the neighborhood. (Our oldest son’s first question, when we brought his baby brother home from the hospital, was: “When will he be old enough to play baseball?”). Occasionally, when Ken and Barbie were tired or when her friends had to go home, our daughter would join the boys in the backyard for ball. But the reverse never happened, for two reasons: the boys never tired of ball and Barbies were for girls.
That brings us to the fateful day when our now 4, 6, and 8 year old kids taught us an important lesson about the ability of kids’ imaginations to transcend all the TV, movie, children’s books, and playground stereotypes they were exposed to every day. It was a rainy Saturday and Emily’s closest Barbie buddies were all unavailable. This was a potential 7.0 crisis on the kid Richter scale.
Downstairs, in the basement, our boys had a 5 foot basketball hoop set up for rainy days. To compensate for age and size difference, our 8 year old played on his knees. Meanwhile upstairs, our daughter was able to sustain a Barbie soap opera (there was always drama with Ken and Barbie) on her own for about half an hour, but then she exhausted her imagination and needed a friend to contribute to the plot and dialog. But on this day, there were no friends and no outdoor options.
This was clearly a parenting moment, and my wife leaped into action. She called the boys upstairs and told them they had to be their sister’s Barbie buddies, at which point we both upgraded to DEFCON 3 and waited for the explosion. No explosion. Just a loud groan from the 8 year old and an echo groan from the 4 year old, followed by the negotiations. Will she play basketball with us after? How long do we have to do it? Do we have to talk like Barbie? When’s lunch? Each question asked by the 8 year old was echoed by the 4 year old. At that point, mom made it very clear: Your sister puts up with a lot of boy stuff in this house. Please go upstairs, now. Play Barbie and pretend to like it. Big groan, echo groan, synchronous stair stomping.
Standing at the foot of the stairs, we again waited for an explosion. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes. All was quiet except for a Barbie voice and two Ken voices. We snuck upstairs for a peek. And there they were, all three kids sitting cross-legged on the floor, our daughter holding two Barbies and each of the boys holding a Ken. Barbie was chattering about school and clothes and shoes and love. The Kens, however, were shooting baskets. Together, the kids had rigged up a miniature hoop using a light post and a tire from the vast Barbie paraphernalia in our daughter’s closet. They used one of Barbie’s many purses as a ball. And as the boys shot baskets with one hand, they dutifully answered all of Barbie’s dialog questions with their Kens held in the other hand. Yes, those shoes are pretty. Yes, we would like to go for ice cream later. No, we haven’t seen Scooter lately. Of course I like you. They even volunteered their own script lines. Don’t cry, I’m sure she didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Are you going to the park later? School was fun today.
Meanwhile, the boys gave each other subtle high fives when one of the Kens made a shot. Although their sister knew exactly what was happening and had actually helped design the basketball set-up, she didn’t mind the sports sub-plot. Barbie and Ken were together, acting out an impromptu storyline almost as creatively as they would have with her girlfriends.
The calm was shattered when, after more than an hour of blissful play, our little girl ran down the stairs, breathless.
“Mommy, mommy, I don’t know what to do!”
“What is it, sweetie? Are the boys tired of playing?”
“No, they’re still having fun, but something amazing happened…Barbie’s pregnant!”
“Barbie just found out she’s pregnant and has to tell Ken, but I think Sammy’s too young to hear about things like that. What should I do?! How can we get Sammy out of the room?! Ken needs to know right away!”
“Well, sweetheart, I think it’s okay for Barbie to tell Ken while Sammy’s in the room, but just don’t say how it happened, okay?”
“OK mom, good idea! Thanks!!!”
And she gleefully bounded back upstairs to break the news to Ken.
After lunch, they all played basketball downstairs. The boys shot left-handed to “give her a chance.”
And that was the first of many days the kids played Barbie and ball together.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
Image: From Mattel.com