Updated: Mar 4
I was a very pretty little girl who grew up in a feminist household. Want to know what that might look like? When I was a child, my mother made sure people wouldn't gush excessively over how pretty I was. She wanted me to learn my actions were more important than my looks. So she actively stepped in and redirected conversations so they were about my mind and not about my appearance.
That was a great lesson to learn as a little girl. An important one. Being pretty is wonderful, but what we do is more important. I take that lesson with me today.
Especially when I’m teaching kindergarteners, and there are little girls dressed in pretty princess dresses. They are so happy. They love their dresses. Elsa. Princess Sophia. Aurora. Cinderella. You name it, I talk to so many little girls who love princesses. And they want to be princesses. So they run up to me and show me their dresses expecting a compliment and wanting to talk about it and . . .
And you know what I think of that?
I think it's amazing.
These are young people who are passionate about a story, about a character, about one of the many forms of literature. These young people are in love with art.
Furthermore, I think whether or not this interaction is positive or negative ultimately depends on how it’s handled. When a little girl approaches you to show off her princess dress, it might seem like there’s only two options.
One, you gush over how pretty she looks, centring all compliments over how much she looks beautiful. Downside of this is that you’re training little girls to put so much stress in their appearance, and not enough in their personality.
Two, you tell her that she’s more than her looks, and shut down the whole princess obsession completely. Downside of this is that you’re shaming a little girl for liking something perfectly acceptable to like. I mean, it’s 2020. Girls are allowed to like being princesses (heck, anyone regardless of gender is allowed to like princesses).
I believe there’s a third option. I like to call it The Pretty Princess Side Step.
What is this? Well, here’s the thing about stories: the moral messages we get from them are mostly from our interpretation, and less from the story itself. So you know what? Tell that girl that she looks so beautiful in her dress. If she’s running up to you and showing you her dress, that’s important to her.
But then, do a sidestep. Ask if she’s watched the movie and what she thought of it. Ask if she’s read the book. Maybe, if she’s old enough, if she’s read the original. If it’s Cinderella, ask if she’s read the versions from all over the world. Fairy tales are a form of literature, so why not turn it around that way? Ask who her favourite character was and why. Ask if she’d want to go on that adventure. Go to a party like the one in the book? Enjoy the food the main character enjoyed? Sing with the birds and animals? There are so many questions!
And what about the moral lessons from these stories? We can say the moral lessons are “find a prince and get married”, but we can also train children to read different lessons from the movies and books. Putting our interpretation of the story in. If kids are watching fairy tales, and love them, let’s not shame them for that. Let’s help them find something good in the story they like.
Good moral lessons are obvious in movies like Frozen, Moana, Mulan, etc. where the princesses, literally, kick butt and go on amazing adventures.
What about some fairy tales where the moral lessons might be less obvious? Here are a few examples with lessons we can take from them:
Cinderella: be kind in the face of adversity; stand up to bullies; free yourself from toxic situations; believe in love; be kind to your friends.
Beauty and the Beast: seeing the best in people; believing in people; it’s okay to be different and a little weird; find a place you love to be, not one where you’re supposed to be happy.
Tangled: be fearless; being kind isn’t a weakness; pursue your dreams; listen to your instincts; you will find where you belong; the unknown is full of potential; be resourceful.
Here’s the thing: if a child loves a fairy tale, use what they love to teach them lessons.
When I was teaching kindergarten, I had a classroom full of mostly little girls. But everyone loved princesses. They also had some behaviour problems (they were three and four, so naturally). So for a couple years, when there was a lesson to learn, I always framed it in the form of princesses.
I asked them, “Do you want to be a princess?”
They said, “Yes.”
I told them, “Well, wearing a pretty dress doesn’t make you a princess. Princesses are kind to their friends. Princesses use their words instead of hitting their friends. Princesses don’t give up when something is difficult. Princesses stand up for their friends and help them. They don't laugh at their friends when they’re struggling. Princesses aren't bullies. If you are kind, smart, a good friend, and never give up, that’s what makes you a princess.”
And you know what? That message hit home for my students.
That’s the Pretty Princess Side Step. For all the children out there who love pretty dresses, that’s amazing. But the stories where the dresses came from? If we talk to kids about it, then those stories can be very empowering.
It all depends on how we approach it.