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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11 Comments

  1. Mama Squirrel
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve heard your rabbit story before, and you’ve heard mine about The Apprentice’s paper dolls that lived under the bathroom sink–and that were forgotten when she got a “real” dollhouse.

    Important thoughts, and very true. Our girls’ favourite babies have changed over the years, but the longest-running are the homemade rag dolls their grandma made each of them when they were toddlers. (Not to mention our squirrel puppet, who’s been posed, bashed around, taken to tea parties, and taught to read.)

  2. My Boaz's Ruth
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Interesting! When you started talking about the American Girl dolls, my first thought was the Cabbage Patch kids! I was just a bit too old for them, but I remember clearly the year they came out because my sister (who is 2 years younger than me) was still in the age. (though I’d have said they were more for pre-teen types of ages than toddlers. It may have to do with how old I was when they came out)

    And our father had a standing rule that he wouldn’t buy any toys advertised on T.V. (He was not fond of “fads” and I guess this was a good way of avoiding them). But it didn’t matter to my sister because she wanted her very own unique baby with its adoption certificate, etc. (And frankly, that had to have been the draw because the cabbage patch kids were not that pretty. And we had Mandy’s already that I don’t recall us playing with as much as the Barbie-sized dolls. Though that could be just my memory.) But they were so popular that they just could not be found in the stores, and my dad was out of work so there wasn’t that much in the way of money anyway. But as you said, all the girls at church had one and they were having “Cabbage Patch” parties and not inviting us because we didn’t have the CPK dolls to attend. and my sister, who is much more socially oriented than I, was crushed.

    My dad had gotten good at going to huge garage-sale type of sales and finding good deals. And soon thereafter, he found a “Garbage Pail Kid” and got that for Rachel. And I don’t really remember that being played with either. But it looked very similar to the cabbage patch. (I don’t remember us getting invited to any more of those parties afterward even. But it might have been in the time we were moving at that point. It wasn’t a big deal in the end)

    these days, I go into Toys R Us and they have huge numbers of cabbage Patch Kids, and I’m not even tempted, even remembering the days when we wanted one because it was popular. I could get them for very cheap. But even when I find myself wanting a doll to cuddle/use for prop purposes (Does it make me weird that I still find myself nurturing my dolls on occasion?), it isn’t a cabbbage Patch kid that fits the bill.

  3. Debs
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    What I love is the way kids can spend hours playing with the cardboard box that the toy came in rather than the toy. And I’ve got happy memories of when I was little doing things like playing in my Grandma’s laundary basket – using it as a boat 🙂

  4. Meredith
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I just *had* to have a CPK as a child, which turned into quite a production for my family to find one, I heard. I was in 4th grade I think.

    I never got rid of it, and it is now one of my daughter’s favorite play-dolls (as opposed to her security-blanket dolly). She doesn’t know the marketing scheme behind them, and calls it by the name of her imaginary friend, so all in all I am glad to still have it. I suspect in a little while she will enjoy the dressing-up aspect too.

    I struggle with the too-much-stuff thing, since at thrift shop prices it is so easy to justify purchases. I find it much easier to ignore full-price catalogs, though I do clip items from them for family gift ideas.

  5. Stephanie
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    My grandmother was left in a barn as a toddler with her two older siblings. They all ended up in an orphanage, and it stayed with her (for good reason.) My grandfather was the type who could turn any business into gold (and actually had a gold jewelry business just for fun until the day he died. He panned in the river across the street from his house and never found anything, but people from states away with better luck than him used to bring their finds for him to make into jewelry. Just a bit of family trivia), so they had money. However, my grandma always made my mom and her siblings give away the previous year’s toys to the local orphanage and my mom had maybe one or two childhood toys when she left home to marry my dad. Giving away the stuffed animals and dolls (particularly more than the other toys) stayed with her.

    My dad was enlisted until I was six, and we had very little until I was about 12. But I will tell you that I have over 150 stuffed animals and about six dolls. My mom, before she got arthritis, was an outstanding seamstress, and made us many things as well as used that talent to earn money for the family. My brother is a minimalist and has very few of his childhood items left, but the 150 animals (not ALL homemade, but including two homemade “Cabbage Patch” type dolls and three real ones that my grandparents funded for my parents) are things that are just things, but like my books, I’d rather not part with them. It was extremely important to my mom that we not be forced to give up our toys–we volunteered and gave in many other ways. It was just a personal thing in my family.

    My daughter has blocks, puzzles, and other toys. She mostly ignores them in favor of the five dollar baby doll (is that the equivalent of $.25 twenty years ago? Heh) and my Cabbage Patch dolls. She drags them ALL over the house, and sometimes tries to drag them up and down the stairs (she’s 18 months old). She wraps them up in newly washed sheets, dresses them in her own clothes (she has a thing for anything in my laundry baskets, but just the clean stuff, I promise! I’m not particular so I just let her have at things), feeds them out of the old baby food jars I reused to make baby food and am not currently using (they are in reserve for oh, about next August, as #2 will be about 6 months at that time), plays with her own spoons and plates, an old picnic set we have, her baby bathtub, and other miscellaneous items. We used the stuffed animals to get her into a bedtime routine (she is allowed to pick out one “sleepytime” animal from the hordes each night), and she rotates.

    She has what I consider a goodly amount of her own toys in addition to the ones she and her sister (the not-yet-born one) have inherited from me and old wooden toys her Great Uncle and Great Grandfather made for her daddy and her aunts when they were small (an ark, a barn, wooden letters, and wooden animals). My MIL has also asked if we want her wooden dolly bed and some other items, as we have the only grandchild(ren) as yet, and there won’t be any more on that side for a while (and my SILs are not really the nostalgic type). G’s not interested now, but I think she will love them!

    This is really long, sorry! My point is, I guess, that it’s the parents’ attitudes and interactions that matter more than the toys, I think, at least for the most part. When my parents encountered FYG’s-type request from us, they said “no”, but we were told if we earned the money ourselves and chose to spend it that way (we were highly encouraged not to), we could buy what we chose (oh, within limits. There were things they said “absolutely NOT!!!” to.) And boy, you better have a good attitude when you asked, because otherwise it didn’t matter what it was, it would end up on that list of NOTs, whether or not you had money to spend!!!

    Anyway, I understand where you are coming from. We have been blessed (right now, and we do only have one child with wants as yet, and those are pretty minimal at her age as long as she is allowed to explore the safe items in the house) to be able to afford to buy those kinds of things, although DH and I are consignment shop, hand-me-down, 75% off sale junkies, so spending outrageous amounts on any toy would be unlikely unless she got it from HER grandparents. And we’ve highly encouraged them to spend the money otherwise. If they want to spend the TIME building forts or treehouses and such with the girls, that’s wonderful, but otherwise it’s very cluttery physically and spiritually, isn’t it?

    I would rather spend toy shopping time making clay dolls and accessories for her and teaching her how to sew clothes and such for them. I adored my dollhouse (generic, but it lasted about 12-14 years and I harbor a secret desire to become a miniature enthusiast. I did all sorts of “renovations” to that dollhouse over the years until it just had to be “demolished” during my first assignment in the Air Force.) Of course, she will have other interests and I won’t interfere with those, but the whole idea is really to share and encourage the creativity…and from my own experience, that can be done with or without the store bought toys (we used all sorts of regular toys in ways the manufacturer never imagined, and they were GOOD ways).

    It’s hard now that she’s so young and rough with things…and YES, I spend a lot of time working with her on that, but she doesn’t exhibit those traits outside of home much, and it’s been her personality from birth to be this way…challenging but a total character and very independent!…but it won’t be long before I can engage her in creating and exploring (I try to do it now, but there are limits to what an 18 month old can do. She helps me with my chores and we make her do as much as practical for herself, but well…you get it. She’s not even two yet!)

    I’m sorry this is so long! I really enjoyed this post. I have a slightly different approach, but agree in the principles, and don’t feel the LEAST bit guilty about being ABLE to afford to get her the expensive stuff and still refusing to do so. It’s hard not to buy the toy store, but she is about as imaginative as I was as a kid, so I have no issues with letting her turn laundry, DVD and old VCR video boxes, wipes (my goodness she loves paper towels, rags and wipes…she cleans EVERYTHING with them and spends hours washing the dolls, the tables, me and DH, etc), and whatever she wants into toys. Cheap or free stickers are a huge hit…and it goes on and on. And she LOVES outdoor items as toys, too, so it’s good that we live rurally in the mountains!!!

    Ok, sorry, leaving now! Loved this post!

  6. blestwithsons
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ve about given up on toys around here. Musical instruments and each other… And a few balls. That’s about all they need. Right now the youngest is playing with a plastic cereal bowl, the middle two are playing with a blanket from their bed (which just got thrown over my head!) and the oldest is making jewelry… It’s all good!

  7. Sheri Payne
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    A few years ago we began to give the kids an “allowance” instead of buying those things they “wanted.” Now they have to decide which “wants” they can spend their own money on. It’s funny how quickly a “want” disappears when they see how much it really costs.

    Plus we require them to tithe 10% and save 20%.

    What a difference we’ve seen, not just in their “wants,” but also in how well they take care of the items they’ve bought with their “own” money.

  8. Elizabeth B
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Buying toys, easy to pass up.

    Books, not so much.

    We have an American Girl doll we got for free at a bookstore (notice a book theme going on here?) My daughter was about 2 1/2 at the time, they had been using them in the store for a while then gave them away to girls who were around at the time. At first, we tried to decline, but they gave it to us anyway. My husband thinks she’s scary looking, and couldn’t believe anyone would spend that much money for them. My daughter is now 4 1/2 and prefers her stuffed animals to dolls. She also likes books!

  9. itazurakko
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    I think the allowance is a good idea, too. Sometimes the best and longest lasting lesson is to save up for the fad item, get it, and realize that it wasn’t really worth it at all.

  10. Mother Auma
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I knew I had a post in me about this, so I posted over at my blog. I linked to you. Thanks for these posts!

  11. B. Durbin
    Posted November 4, 2006 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    I had a Cabbage Patch kid, but I certainly didn’t beg for one. My mother had, instead, tracked one down through the agency of a friend and gave it to me for my brithday (which was after that Christmas craze, so she didn’t have to pay a premium.) Apparently, this was THE doll, and this nice couple at church gave me several outfits for her.

    When I have a daughter (or daughters), that’s where she will go. Or maybe her “sister” from a few years later. But I think some of the outfits have been passed to nieces already.

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