A Duck in a Princess World

Note: This was written at the beginning of November as a potential editorial. 

My daughter chose a duck costume for Halloween, a decision that took all of 30 seconds. When it arrived, she immediately strutted her fluffiness around the living room, beak proudly perched on head, confidence evident in every waddle. “I love baby animals,” she proclaimed to her daddy, dog, and herself.

Because of this excitement, my husband and I took her to community events where she could wear it. It was at one such event that she seemingly took notice of the other girls her age: shiny wigs, sparkly costumes, uncomfortable looking shoes clicking on the tile. “I hate my duck costume,” she said. I was struck by the emotion, watched her excitement wilt before me, and asked what it was she wanted to be. The response? A princess.

I felt, for the first time, the pendulum of influence tipping in the direction of her peers, the culture, even Disney. All it took was for one hug from a friend dressed up as Ariel and the realization that she was the only girl in what could be perceived as a gender-neutral costume.

Princess costume or not, I simply want her to be her own person: Independent. Free thinking. Confident in her choices. If she is going to dress up as a female movie character, let it be of her own accord.

Although this was our first experience with peer pressure taking hold, it most certainly won’t be our last. Lisa M. Dinella, an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University, found through her research that halloween costumes actually become more gender-typed the older children become.

As a child, I watched Disney movies, played both Barbies and G.I. Joes, and grew up to be a believer in equality on all gender fronts. It is not the princess culture that has me worried, it is the thought my impressionable child can be so swayed so soon by her peers.

There is much talk about raising our children to be independent in their actions, but how do we encourage independence in their thinking despite any other influences? Or is that a naive notion even to spend time considering?

As a society, we do not encourage independence in our children when we expect all kids of one age group or gender to be interested in the same fill-in-the-blank. Pompoms to the girl, football to the boy; the same items on most children’s food menus; school projects allowing little to no room for choice; gender-marketed food and toys; or even the expectation that all kids have seen a particular movie or show.

We recently waited in the doctor’s office for a check-up. Because pretenses do not exist among children, two girls eagerly brought their mother’s phone to the same table where my daughter was sitting. The popular song, “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen” belted from its speakers as the twins sang along, my girl sitting in silence. The fact that she had not seen the movie nor knew the song by heart was cause for surprise of those nearby and comments were made. The implication was that every four year old should love that film.

A wise colleague once told me it is the stories we tell ourselves and create in our minds which make up our realities. I wonder then how we shift our stories so that more independent thinking can be modeled, encouraged, and valued.

As educators, are we lifelong learners modeling the pursuits of an academic or creative passion? As parents, do we stand firm in the wake of decisions, unswayed by comparison? And as a society, do we eliminate stereotypes and biases in our messages to and conversations with the youngest among us?

In an ideal world, children can dress unique to their taste, spend free time as they choose, and explore the depths of their own imagination.

Diversity should be celebrated, independent thinking insisted upon, and costumes made as unique as the children wearing them.