In costly times, some parents balk at 'princess fever'

Six-year-old Lindsay Morris (left) and her 3-year-old sister, Claire, played inside their suburban Atlanta home. Six-year-old Lindsay Morris (left) and her 3-year-old sister, Claire, played inside their suburban Atlanta home. (John Amis/ Associated Press)
By Martha Irvine
Associated Press / May 24, 2009
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CHICAGO - All the pink, frilly, and sparkly - from the princess dresses to the 4-foot-high pink castle in the playroom - isn't necessarily what Caroline Morris would choose for her eldest daughter.

She doesn't want to stop her 6-year-old from being who she is. But as princess fever has reached a new high with this generation of girls, she and other parents are feeling the urge to rein in the would-be reigning ones, just a little.

That's especially true in tough economic times, when more parents are focusing on messages of frugality and humility that, they say, just don't fit with the princess mentality that has become a rite of passage for many girls.

Morris knows, of course, that some parents think such worries are ridiculous.

"But what happens when our daughters get to adulthood and they realize that the world isn't a fairy tale?" asks Morris, who lives in suburban Atlanta and insists she doesn't mind imaginative play. She just wants her girls to strive for something beyond being "pretty and glamorous."

The debate has been around for a long time, says Dr. Ken Haller, a pediatrician at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis. But as princess paraphernalia becomes all but unavoidable, he says he's seeing more parents struggling with it and "questioning whether the princess message is a good thing."

These days, that message begins practically at birth with everything from princess baby shirts and "her royal highness" bibs to princess-themed photo albums and picture frames for baby girls. By the time those girls are toddlers, many are drawn to the princess dresses, glittery crowns, and even makeup.

All of it, Haller says, constitutes a brilliant marketing move that targets a normal stage of child development. By age 3, children are beginning to define themselves, both with gender and as individuals. They're also big-time into fantasy play, which for boys, often manifests itself in super heroes.

But somehow, the princess phenomenon has become way more loaded.

"It just encourages parents who put their kids on a pedestal - and who encourage their kids a lot and rarely criticize," says Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State who's done research on the way parenting affects children. "You could label that kind of parenting 'princess parenting.' "

Meanwhile, Greg Allen, a father who writes a blog called Daddy Types, applauded the recent demise of Club Libby Lu, mall-based stores for girls that focused on makeovers and super-frilliness.

"As a new parent, I dreaded someday having to fight the superficial, idiotic, pop culture-worshiping chain's impending influence on my daughter," he wrote after Saks Inc., which owned Club Libby Lu, announced it would close those stores by this spring. His comments set off a lengthy discussion between those who shared his glee and those who were offended.