“I have survived the American Girl store experience. I am bloodied but unbowed.”
My husband’s Facebook status yesterday evening.
After a month of earning tokens, Pudding finally got to bring her Kelly doll home. As one last treat, we’d arranged her to have dinner at the American Girl Bistro. We’d used a velcro calendar system to count down the days, and by the time it came around, Pudding was buzzing with excitement (and with her very own little cocktail of autism and ADHD).
I told the kids that the day had finally arrived and we were going to go to American Girl. Cubby immediately announced that he wanted to go to American BOY!
Now once upon a time, back when I was an Idealist, I’d have been horrified at such entrenched gender stereotypes as my children were displaying. I would buy books and blocks for Pudding, steer her away from Barbies and other dolls. But every time we went for a play date, she would gravitate towards dolls. From the first day she could state her preference, she announced pink was her favourite colour. She would wear dresses only. She loved princesses. She was a girlie girl, despite my best efforts. Like many things, I soon learned that I couldn’t steer this child- I was along for the ride.
Her apparent femininity was sometimes at odds with her personality. She was always hyperactive, and she loved running and climbing. She loved chaotic environments, and being with other kids. She was also the toughest kid I ever met. She would fall a lot, but rarely cry. I didn’t know at the time that this hypo-sensitivity was a symptom of her autism. I was just bemused by this tomboy-meets-princess.
And then along came Cubby. I assumed that growing up in such a girlie environment, he’d play with the dolls and princesses too. But very early on he expressed an interest in firetrucks and trains. And unlike his tough cookie sister, Cubby overreacted to most sensory input. He seemed delicate and fragile; preferring peace and quiet, he shied away from other kids. Thanks to early intervention, he is far less defensive these days, but most days he is still the polar opposite of his big sister.
Nothing teaches you about gender stereotypes like actually spending time with young children. By the time we learned how difficult it could be to engage them, we were happy to use any and all interests to play with them both. I let them choose what those interests are. I let them choose who they are, even if that doesn’t quite match with all those good notions of parenting I had before I was actually a parent.
Armed with a train set for Cubby, we reached American Girl with a prancing Pudding. She galloped around the store with her new doll, smothering her in hugs and kisses. The wait for the table was excruciating. She was excited by the doll having its own special chair and cup and saucer. She was excited by all the pink. She was excited by all the girls and dolls. Naturally, she was too excited to actually eat. She hummed with pleasure.
When the server made an announcement for us to sing Happy Birthday to another girl there, Pudding wanted to join them for cake, and we had to explain that we can’t sit with people we don’t know. To her credit, she returned to her seat. We ate as quickly as we could in the face of imminent sensory overload. Though she was dazzled by her surroundings, she made every effort to follow the rules for dining out. We were bloodied, but unbowed.
To the average observer, they looked like just another American Girl and Boy, but forgive me for thinking they are so much more (they’re English too!).