I’ve decided I’m going to be firm with my youngest child. Obviously, nobody is ever really firm with their youngest child, but from now on, I am going to try.
The scene is our village library, where I have firmly told my oldest child that he can’t go on a computer because I’ve only just prised him off the iPad at home in order to come here. In a second he is expressing his wonder at the fact that there are still books about the Second World War in the library that he hasn’t borrowed yet, and most excitingly of all, there’s one about the Battle of Britain.
Flora has reached straight for the lurid pink draw of Barbie: The Princess and the Popstar DVD.I tell her she can’t have it, and scan the shelves for a more suitable heroine for my active, creative, independently minded three year old daughter. You know, a heroine who has interests and adventures and thoughts beyond her personal appearance. I’m struggling, if I’m honest. There are cars and Minions, Octonauts and Fairies, but ordinary girls? Well, there’s Lola. Flora loves Charlie and Lola, and I offer one of the DVDs to her.
“Nooooooo!” She wails. She is on the floor, sobbing and beating her fists against the floor.
“I want Barbie! I want Barbie!”
How does she even know who Barbie is?
I’m experiencing moments of fatal doubt. Flora seems so impassioned, so determined. Who am I to judge a Barbie DVD unworthy? I’ve never even seen a Barbie DVD. Am I just being prejudiced? Does it necessarily follow that a girl must be vacuous because she’s blonde, bambi-eyed and has vital statistics that couldn’t possibly support real life? I’ve never believed in censorship. As a bookseller I was never a book snob. With a few exceptions. How can Flora develop her own opinions if I tell her what her opinions should be, and don’t banned things always become twice as desirable? I actually believe children should be allowed to explore their own inclinations and learn to judge for themselves and…
“The thing that really helped us,” Leo tells me, “Is that we overestimated the Germans, and they underestimated us.”
Perhaps I’ve underestimated Flora. Perhaps I should sit on the floor with her, make eye contact, smooth her troubled brow and tell her a story about Sylvia Pankhurst.
“I. Want. Barbie!” Flora screams, and I know for sure that she may have swapped the terrible twos for the traumatic threes this week, but she has not reached the age of reason yet.
Once upon a time, I had parenting philosophies, and one of them was this: never give in to tantrums. This is how it worked. Leo would make any request of me, and I would decide then whether it was a battle I was prepared to fight. If I thought there was any chance at all I would give in, then I’d just say yes straight away. If, on the other hand, I chose to fight the battle I’d be like the rock of Gibraltar, unmovable. Because if you say yes or no to a child, they know where they stand, but if you say no, no, no, oh okay, yes, they learn that throwing themselves to the ground and sobbing gets them what they want. And this is awful.
But what is a philosophy, anyway? If a child never sees you change your mind, how can they learn flexibility?
You see what happens when doubt creeps in?
“I don’t believe in censorship.”
“What?” Asks Leo.
“I think I’m going to let Flora borrow the Barbie DVD.”
“Well she’s not watching it when I’m at home.” Leo says, and this seems fair enough.
Barbie: The Princess and the Popstar is as bad as I feared – I’ve watched it now so I feel free to judge. On the other hand, it is no more nonsense than a Thomas DVD. Where it is worse is in its colour scheme. Everything in Barbie’s world – marble floors, palace walls, the night sky, the quiff of the evil roadie who is trying to steal a fairy-tended magical diamond-growing plant – is tinged in a nausea-inducing shade of pink or lilac. I let Flora watch it on three occasions, on the theory that this might get it out of her system, and then take it back to the library.
A friend tells me about another Barbie DVD. “It’s terrible, she arrives in Paris and all the Musketeers laugh at her and ask if she’s come to clean the office.”
“Is there a moral to this story? Does Barbie become a Musketeer?” another friend asks.
“Oh yes, thank God!”
Barbie and the Musketeers. My mind, literally, boggles. I can’t tell whether I’m intrigued or horrified.
There’ll be no outright Barbie ban, just hopefully a little subtle steering. It’s true I don’t believe in censorship, but I do believe in curatorship.
As for being firm with my daughter – I guess that’s still a work in progress.