Last Saturday morning our regular ritual was disturbed. Normally we go to the Marietta Square Farmer’s Market and run errands while listening to four favorite radio programs, “Martinis Con Queso”, “Wait,Wait Don’t Tell Me” , “Car Talk” and “Splendid Table”. Last week the farmer’s market was not scheduled to run and we got most of our errands done Friday, so, we were trying to decide what to do with the morning. I suggested that we might go to a local mall to watch the yuppie larvae do the Christmas thing at the doll store. I say that with fondness, humor, appreciation, cultural self-awareness and just a little bit of bite because I have such mixed feelings and recognize all of them when I make the suggestion.
I first became aware of American Girls character dolls from Pleasant Company when looking for gifts for my daughter. I was thrilled. Here was a set of old fashioned dolls complete with historical setting, old fashioned accessories, a book and an amazing wardrobe. It was a wonderful group of toys that allowed my child to be a child, to have a play experience that was wholesome, fun and age appropriate. One of the original dolls, Molly, had a story and accessories that were set during the time when my mother was a child. Molly looked like my mother looked, with braided pigtails and glasses and she carried a WWII nurse doll just like the one my mother played with as a child. After giving Molly to my daughter, I showed her my own mother’s nurse doll and she could see that her doll’s doll was a miniature that looked very much like her grandmother’s doll. There was a powerful thread of tradition in play when I bought this toy for my child and I felt really good about it.
The dolls and their accessories are expensive, but I was clearly not the only one willing to pay the price. Over time the line of toys has grown in every possible way. There are more characters from different times with different stories as well as non-character baby bolls. Mattel Inc. has bought Pleasant Company, and in select upscale markets there are retail stores with a party area where girls who are dressed like their dolls can have a tea party to celebrate a special occasion. Thankfully, Mattel Inc. left many of the features that make the dolls worthwhile intact, but the sheer magnitude of the current line is a bit over the top. There is a salon in the store where girls can take the dolls to have their hair done, part restoration, part theater.
Last year I was in the mall where the American Girls Store is located at Christmas when I moved into people watching mode. It was amazing. There were finely dressed little girls in their Christmas best with their matching character dolls headed to see Santa for the annual Christmas photo. Suddenly this grounded product line seemed to have carried the perfect childhood into the realm of the unreal, to a place where we might be in danger of meeting Veruca Salt. The scary part is that I don’t know where, exactly, the line lies between creating the perfect childhood in truth and creating the “perfect childhood” that isn’t, the one that has lifelong fallout.
Parenting is a mine field and the task grows more complex over time. The constant, independent of income, is that we want to protect our children from harm and to give them the best possible life; but with expanding economic expectations it is harder to define what the best possible childhood includes. Since the nineteen fifties parents have expected that life would be economically better for their children than it was for them. As a whole it has been. But, six decades later, the certainty of that expectation is beginning to weaken, the economic landscape is diverging and the reality is disquieting. Many people want it all and want it now, and they have lead a life that makes that desire a short-term reality. Some of these people have been on the top of heavily leveraged economic waves that left others paying for their choices and they are disconnected from the consequences. Pick any recent disaster of the financial systems and at the root there will be a group of people who tried to “outsmart” the system, to find a way to get spectacular returns over a short time span, or to live beyond their means. Frequently they move on to the next bubble just in time to let others pay the real cost of the last one. These expectations are fostered in childhood and grow up to send worldwide ripples in places like Dubai as well as at home. Over the decades, our ideal of the economic standard it takes to provide a perfect childhood have changed. Television programs about families depict those changing ideals and show the progression of expectation from the depression era setting of “The Waltons” through the post war boom setting of “Ozzie and Harriet” and on to today. Expectations increase steadily and as time goes by and become increasingly unrealistic. Like Lake Wobegone, “all the children are above average.
With all of this in mind, I watch the GAP commercial. Those are some beautiful kids. They are dancing and happy and wearing the cutest clothes. They are cool. What a perfect piece of marketing. Who wouldn’t want that perfection for their child? “How cute are these boots?” that song is in my head when I walk through the mall past the American Girls store. There I am in the mall again wondering where the line is. What constitutes the perfect childhood, what expectations are you planting for your children and what will they have to do in order to meet those expectations as they grow. How cute ARE these boots? I want them and I don’t even have a child to put them on anymore! At the same time, I can not imagine a childhood any better that the one in “The Waltons”. They did not have the material wealth that we think we need to provide for our children, but they did have everything that truly matters. When my family gathered for Christmas in Alabama, we filled all the bedrooms of my grandmother’s large antebellum home. The house was cold. Each room had a fireplace where a ceramic gas heater had been installed. We only heated the rooms that were being occupied and the heat would be turned down at bedtime. As we snuggled into the covers for warmth, invariably someone would call out “goodnight Johnboy'”.