Sunday, October 3, 2010

What we Teach Kids about Family Life

The Paper Bag Princess is a modern retelling of the old "damsel in distress gets rescued by handsome prince followed by marriage and happily ever after" fairy tale. In the Paper Bag version, the prince and princess are about to be married when a dragon shows up, burns up the princess' clothes so that she has to wear a paper bag (hence the title), and kidnaps the prince. The princess then tracks down the dragon, wears him out, and rescues the prince. The prince, though, complains that the princess doesn't look pretty any more. The princess tells him he's a jerk and they don't get married.

This book is very popular among left-wing types, and I just noticed that it's listed in the handouts from my younger daughter's school. It was also presented as a play in the school.

I don't like the Paper Bag Princess, and I don't think it's "empowering", as advertised, for several reasons.

1.) It's a parody of a fairy tale that most kids today haven't heard in the first place. We're not living in a culture that encourages young girls to think they'll be rescued by marriage, and we don't need to go out of our way to teach little girls that marriage doesn't mean "happily ever after". Our kids know that already. If their own parents haven't divorced, they've seen divorce in their friends' families.

2.) In a sense, the book is too true to modern life. The princess does everything a man can do; she outwits the dragon and rescues the prince. But at the end of the tale she has no marriage to show for it. This is sadly reminiscent of the choice many women today are faced with -- career or family? Pick one. That's not empowering, either.

3.) The story downplays the importance of marriage as a life choice. For most people, the decisions of whom, or whether, to marry, and when, or whether, or how, to bring children into the family, are enormously important, but, at least in the circles I move in, they are consistently disparaged in favor of "career" choices. When I was a kid, I was often asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew that "mother" was not an approved choice. "Lawyer" would have been good, though.

The underlying message is "don't even think about a happy marriage; it doesn't happen."

The Paper Bag Princess reminds me of a project that used to be inflicted on kids in an attempt to discourage teen pregnancy. Kids would be given an egg, or a bag of flour, and told to look after it as if it was a baby. They had to cart it around wherever they went; if they had to leave it, they would need a "babysitter". If I recall correctly, the bag of flour might even be rigged with an alarm clock that would go off at unpredictable times.

The underlying message here is "Babies ruin your life. Whatever you do, don't have one." Is this really what we want to tell our kids? They were very recently babies themselves.

My younger daughter, aged 7, loves to speculate about whether she'll marry (currently she's against it because she thinks it would be disgusting to kiss a boy), and whether she'll have kids, and whether she should give birth or adopt (she herself was adopted.) I like having these discussions, and I'm quick to tell her that I look forward to being a grandmother. I'm not going to tell her, "don't have a baby until you're ready for that kind of responsibility!" Is anyone ever really ready for a baby? You become ready by having one. And I've never heard of a parent who says, "don't get a job until you're ready for that kind of responsibility!"

We've got a culture that valorizes work and denigrates family, beginning at a very young age. It's time for a rethink.


  1. PsychMom says:

    You make some very good points. Lately I've been evaluating alot about our day to day life (mine and my daughter's) and the conclusion I'm coming to is that school has generally made our lives less pleasant. Life is too rushed and too consumed by "the schedule". Our family life has degraded to where I feel stressed because I have NO time to myself (except at work...whooppee) and more often than I can stand it, my child and I are at each others throats. This is because we're both tired, bored and stressed. No fairy tales here.

    The rethink that you're talking about FedUpMom is definitely needed. We need to reclaim what's rightfully ours. Our lives and choice about how we spend it.

  2. Not sure how I feel about this. In general, I'm not a fan of Robert Munsch; I find his stories to be gimmicky, emotionally unengaging, and full of unpleasant adults and kids. And I believe that kids would be better off reading actual "fairy tales" by people like Andersen and Grimm than parodic critiques such as the Paper Bag Princess. One thing I learned in grad school was: it's hard to critique a canonical text, or understand a critique of one, if you don't know the original text the critique is aimed at.

    That said, I don't have a problem with Munsch trying to counteract stereotypes in the Paper Bag Princess. I think there's still a lot of pressure on girls, not so much to get married and have babies, but to act in certain stereotypical ways vis a vis boys and in general. I mean, we now have a whole culture of manufactured girliness that wasn't even around when I was a kid: for instance, spa parties for 7-year-olds, Brat dolls, etc. So I sort of get what Munsch is trying to do. (And, hey, he's probably the most successful Canadian children's author ever, so I feel I should defend him to some extent, especially since he recently had a stroke and admitted that he's a bi-polar, recovering coke addict and alcoholic!)

  3. PS: I tell my girls that I hope they will have their babies early, possibly while they're still teenagers, because I had them late-ish in life, and I want to be a functional grandmother! (Kidding, of course, though I do hope they won't wait as long as I did.)

  4. northTOmom, I'm in the same boat! I'm also hoping my daughters give me grandchildren while I'm still here to enjoy them.

    I'd like the Paper Bag Princess more if the Princess got some kind of prize at the end. For instance, if she rejected the ungrateful prince and married some other nice young man. Otherwise, it seems like it's sending the wrong message; sure, you can be smart and resourceful if you're a girl, but you'll wind up alone.

  5. Here's another idea for an alternate ending to PBP: suppose the prince says to the princess, "I don't care if the dragon burned up all your beautiful clothes. You're beautiful even in a paper bag!" and then you'd have an illustration of their wedding, with the prince, princess, and all the guests decked out in paper bags. That would carry through the "you don't have to be pretty" moral.

    As it is, I feel the PBP is just too self-conscious and ironic for a kid audience. It's more pleasing to their parents, if anyone.

    This discussion reminds me of a moment in one of Laura Ingall Wilder's books. She's about to marry Alonzo, and she explains to him that she doesn't want to promise to obey him in her wedding vows. Alonzo assures her, "no gentleman would ever require such a thing of his wife!" Ah, romance.

  6. I don't know that particular book, but I wanted to chime in to echo the concern you identify in #3.

    What's strange to me is that this conception of life as being primarily about one's career choice (or lack thereof) seems to last way beyond early childhood and all the way through college and even graduate and professional school.

    The idea of being defined by one's career doesn't ring true to me at all (and I enjoy my job). I think many people see work primarily as a means to other more private ends, not as the central fact about their lives. Yet I think many college students, for example, think about their futures entirely in terms of what jobs they will get. That's not a bad thing to think about, but it seems like an awfully incomplete one. And it may lead them to make choices that will affect other aspects of their lives in ways that they have not even paused to consider.

    I suppose this is just an argument in favor of retaining a central place for the humanities in higher education. Maybe that argument is already lost?