As the Family Goes

JP II Quote

"As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live." John Paul II

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Princess" isn't a bad word

There’s an older gentleman at our church who takes up the collection, who absolutely loves my girls.  He speaks loud enough to suggest he may be slightly hard of hearing, meaning the whole church (or at least the ten pews closest to our vicinity) can always clearly hear him say, “How’s the family?  Oh look at the little princess!”  He never fails to stop us after Mass to say hello, to tell us of his children and grandchildren, his beloved wife who has passed on (and whom he loves more than anything), all the while addressing my five-year-old as, “the princess”.  She beams every time.

 Ever since I’ve been a parent, even many years before I had a girl, I have been aware of the struggle to encourage healthy femininity in our daughters.  While I was still a new Mom of one baby boy, I’ll never forget my physician talking about how as the Mom of two girls, she was determined to raise them as well-balanced women.  She had no dolls or other stereotypical girl toys in her house.  She stocked the playroom with cars, trains, and other non-gender-specific toys to occupy their imaginations.  And do you know what happened?  They made dolls out of those toys.  They wrapped up their little trains and constructed Lego dolls, and imagined for themselves the toys their Mom was so afraid to push on them, for fear of limiting their full potential by subscribing to the common definition of what little girls like.  As she told me, she learned that no matter what you do some traits are written on your soul.  And for Moms of girls, many will vouch that one of these things is the fascination with princesses.

We live in a world that places so much emphasis on physical appearance, and particularly so for girls.  So it’s no surprise that as parents we don’t want our little girls limited in any way, or reduced simply to what they look like or how pretty they can be.  Certainly Disney has not done the greatest job in this department, because they have warped our perception about what being a princess really means – someone born into wealth, who has no other opportunities.  Who has everything she wants, whenever she wants, and servants at her beck and call.  Whose chief desire in life is to look pretty, wear the best dresses, and land the handsome prince.   Those desires of course are I think a part of everyone’s life at some point along the way, the problem is when they become our entire focus and worse, our measure of self-worth. 

But if we get away from Disney’s model of a princess and look to what it really means, can we say it’s all bad?  Royalty in a sense denotes something better, that someone is set apart.  In fact, I think many little boys long to be princes, and we don’t tell them not to.  So why with girls?   There are plenty of programs and articles encouraging mothers not to let their daughters play princesses, or to pretend to be princesses, like doing so is somehow more degrading than say, encouraging them to be a scientist or an athlete.  I’ve read blogs that say things like, “parents shouldn’t tell their little girl she’s beautiful because then she’ll think her looks are the most important thing about her.  Instead they should tell her she’s smart, or funny, or creative.”  And sure, I know that it’s important to affirm other aspects of her personality besides the physical.  But here’s the thing – the physical is part of who they are.  And I believe girls desire not only to be beautiful, but to be affirmed in their beauty.  Of course beauty is all encompassing, and when I tell my girls they are beautiful I say, “everything is about you is beautiful.”  I tell them often that I see radiating in their face all of their inner joy, their intelligence, their sweetness, and that’s what makes them pretty.  But telling them they’re pretty isn’t bad.  And neither is letting them play princesses. 

I think the key is to be attentive to our girls.  I have two little girls, one who is five and the other who is one.  The five-year-old, with three older brothers, is the best possible mixture I could ever conjure of rough-and-tumble femininity.  She will don her best ball gown and shoes, grab a gun and go tracking through the mud after the boys.  She loves painting her nails, doing her hair, and the color pink.  She also loves reading, roughhousing, and farting.  It’s just who she is.  The one-year-old is still so young that it’s difficult to know whether she’ll be the same.  But if she’s not as girly as her sister, that’s no big deal either.   

You see, I think for all our desire not to pigeonhole our daughters in one direction, we risk pigeonholing them in the other.  We tell them “you can’t be a princess”, or at least, “sure, you can be a princess if you want to be materialistic and shallow.  But if you want to be true to your full potential, how about a paleontologist or an astrophysicist?” We avoid telling them they are beautiful because we fear they will think that’s all they have to offer, but instead we neglect to affirm one of the most basic attributes of their personhood – that they ARE beautiful.  We don’t do this to little boys.  We don’t say, “Gee, Superman, he’s kind of one-dimensional.  Wouldn’t you rather be Neil Armstrong?” or “G.I. Joe, really?  What about Stephen Hawkins?”  We don’t hold off on telling boys they are handsome because we worry they will think that’s all they have to offer.  We know that playing superheros does not mean boys will identify with those physical traits of strength and masculinity that are so prominent as to entice millions of boys to want to emulate them.  We suppose that they can enjoy those things that they relate to, while still developing into free-thinking, intelligent, whole men.  Why can’t we do the same with girls?
Of course the simple answer is that we’re fighting against a long culture that has done damage to women by forcing them into stereotypical roles that did limit their potential.  Even as recently as my parents’ generation, boys were encouraged to play and run and do manual labour and learn, go off to college and make something of themselves, while the girls tended to the inside, cleaned up after all the boys and lived oftentimes as servants to them.  As modern women we are undoing many of the wrongs for our girls that our parents, grandparents and generations before had to live within, as we should.  In today’s world, a girl born in an average family can have the same expectations placed on her as a boy, and that’s a very good thing.  I just worry that sometimes we try so hard that we take a step backwards, that we do the very thing we so desperately do not want to do – we make our girls fit into our image of who we think they should be, not theirs.

My goal is to let my girls be who they are, the same way the boys are who they are.  I delight each day at the wonder of each of my children, as their unique personalities reveal themselves to me.  If my daughter wants to pretend to be a superhero, an astronaut, the Prime Minister – great.  But if she wants to be a princess, that’s cool too.  Because to me, she is the most beautiful girl that has ever existed – decked out in a glamorous gown, or covered in mud from head-to-toe.  And if you tell my daughter she is a princess, she will burst with pride, which is just about the sweetest thing ever.  Because you are not berating her or limiting her – you are telling her she is someone special. 


  1. Great post - I love your point that we tell our boys they are handsome and think nothing of it, but think somehow we are damaging our girls by saying that they are "beautiful".

  2. What a good point. I am a mother to two sons, but I do think we are too hard on ourselves for the praise we offer. There is nothing wrong with telling children they are beautiful and showing them how much they are treasured.