Girls and Dolls, Wants and Needs, Part 2

Part One is here. For those who like hundred dollar dolls and have found ways to make them fit your budget, be of good cheer. I do not scorn you. I write this (and wrote it originally) for those who cannot afford them, who have a sinking feeling when they consider the cost of these pricey toys yet feel guilty, as though they are somehow letting their children down by not buying the bigger ticket items from AG or VF or anyplace else. You needn’t feel that way. You children will be just as well served with less expensive toys, and in some cases, no toys at all. However lovely the dolls are, those items all, however cherished and well made, remain wants, not needs. The distinction is important.

Dear ______

I have six daughters, and I have never seen a way to afford six of the American Girl dolls or anything like them, and my girls are still nurturing and loving. They can indeed play just as well with a yard sale find as with a brand new doll from a glossy catalog. You needn’t feel bad that you cannot justify spending that much money on a doll. My children have played with some rather interesting substitutes as well, and it did them a lot of good and no harm at all.

When Pip and Jenny were about 2 and 3 we moved from a small house on a military base (we used the master bathroom shower as the HM’s tool storage place, and we used a designated store-room as our dining room) to our first ‘home of our own. It was a rambling, two story farm house with cellar in the country. It even had two porches! Packing and unpacking took a while (when Pip and Jenny were 2 and 3 The Cherub was still in diapers all the time, and it was a bit like having toddler triplets), and I think the toys were misplaced, but those two found ways to amuse themselves.

Sometimes, they were even acceptable ways.=)

One of the acceptable ways was when those two of mine played for weeks with their special ‘outside babies.’ They were tender, gentle, nurturing and loving as could be with their special ‘outside babies’ (that’s actually what they called them, ‘The Outside Babies’). They carried these babies everywhere outside, sang to them, bathed them, diapered them, were careful to take them in the shade when they got hot, even pretended to nurse them. They took their dolls on visits as they paid calls on the neighbors (the cats, the chickens, the barn, the day lilies). They cradled them gently as they had ‘tea parties’ with cups of water and bread and butter sandwiches. Want to guess what their outside babies were?

Bricks. They each had an old red brick they’d found in the yard and adopted to be their very own Outside Babies. They cherished and tenderly nurtured an old, faded, pair of bricks. It was so cute to watch them put their chubby little cheeks against the face of those bricks and say with concern, “Oh! Baby has a fever. We’ve been in the sun too long!” and then trot over to the shade trees to play until their ‘babies’ cooled off. I wouldn’t trade those memories for a dozen American Dolls.

Later when those girls were about 4 and 5 they expended hours and hours and hours caring for an entire family of babies- a dozen or more. This was in the winter when they couldn’t be outside so much. They cut these babies out of paper, pasted clothes on them, made paper beds and paper blankets for them, cleared out one corner of their bedroom for them, and carried on in a way that had to be seen to be believed (btw, these babies were all paper ‘rabbit people’ they drew, colored, and cut out themselves)

They quit playing so creatively with their rabbit people when they were given a pair of stuffed rabbits that came with several babies in each Mama Rabbit’s apron pocket. The paper rabbit family just disappeared. I used to think the stuffed rabbit is what did it, but now I think the stuffed rabbit came at just the time they were ready to move on to some other creative play.

When Pip and Jenny were about 8 and 9 they spent months creating handkerchief babies- these are made by simply rolling and tying knots in a certain way in a bandana or handkerchief. My grandfather gave us about a dozen of his old bandanas, and my daughters just went to town creating and recreating baby families
with those bandanas. Their oldest two sisters had done the same thing in their turn, and when they were all younger one of the ways I would entertain them at a restaurant was to use the napkins to make each of them a ‘handkerchief baby.’ (tomorrow I’ll try to post directions for making these simple fold, roll, tie dolls).

All our girls have played with babies from thrift shops and garage sales, and they care for them with all the attention and cherishing one could want, just as tenderly as they could have played with a hundred dollar doll ordered from a glossy catalog.

Even the FYG, when she was about six, would bring her thriftshop babies to church with her, and was just flabbergasted that I wouldn’t let her take them out to the cry room to calm them down! She would whisper urgently to me, “But Mother! They are being noisy and bothering other people! I have to get them quiet!” Her .25 cent thrift shop babies were just as ‘alive’ and real to her as if they had cost our grocery budget for a week.

I do understand feeling guilty or at least badly when other people have expensive toys that you cannot justify with a clear heart and head. About twenty years ago I was a young mother and the HG was a toddler/preschooler when the first Cabbage Patch craze swept through the nation. Every child we knew, or so it seemed, except my daughter owned a Cabbage Patch doll. On the Sunday nearest Christmas (Christmas might have fallen on Sunday that year), all the little girls at church (we attended a church with many very wealthy members then), and I felt so terrible about not being able to get my child a Cabbage Patch doll, too. She played just as happily with her own home-made version from her great-grandma, but, the more fool I, I wanted her to have the fancier versions that everybody else had.

Two years later we were at a yard sale and saw a little plastic doll high chair, which is just what she’d been wanting for her babies. I asked the owner how much the chair was, and it was only fifty cents. He said he’d throw in the doll in it for another quarter. I hadn’t even noticed the doll, and we weren’t really in need of another one, so I told him I didn’t want it. He begged me to take doll and high chair for fifty cents because, he said, he really needed to clear stuff out, so I took it. It was, of course, a genuine Cabbage Patch doll. My daughter played with it, but there wasn’t any significant difference between her play with that doll and her others.

I had a good laugh at myself. That experience taught me a much needed lesson about the inherent value in things (there isn’t much), the power of peer influence on adults, and the important distinction between wants and needs.

I don’t begrudge it if somebody else figures out a way to come up with enough expendable income for baby dolls that cost a hundred dollars or more. Doll-makers have to make a living, too. I just no longer feel bad that we never have and probably never will. I’ve learned to accept this as a blessing.

In my experience, the fewer toys my children have, the fewer accessories, the less glitz and glamor, the more creativity I see. Unfortunately, while I no longer feel badly when a toy is outside the price range we feel we can justify for what is still just a toy, I still do not always find it easy to limit the number of toys in the house. I may have learned my lesson about dolls, but I still have a hard time resisting a well-made wooden toy, especially a good set of blocks, and music boxes have an appeal I find hard to resist. A good many of the toys my children do have (and often don’t play with) are toys I bought because I liked them so much. It’s possible to overdo it on the conspicuous consumption even if you only shop at thrift shops and yard sales, and I’ve certainly been just as guilty about this as any maxed out credit card mama. Just because I can do it more cheaply doesn’t make it Good.

But it’s better not to, and it’s okay not to feel inferior about it. I would really hate to have never had the memory of those precious brick baby dolls.

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