Characters In Context

Posted on: May 1, 2010

We recently joined up with a neighborhood co-op playschool – a fantastic parent-run pre-preschool environment that’s equal parts daycare and playdate.  True to the prevailing ethos in our nouveau hippie urb, the standing rule is: No Characters Allowed.

While explaining the co-op’s policy on bringing in items for individual use or group share, our welcome committee gaily recounted the time when a donated box of Groovy Girls mysteriously appeared on site, only to be swiftly and equally mysteriously disappeared by a conscientious shift worker.  This was all described with a chuckle, and the admission that the girls in the group had been really excited about the dolls.  [I don’t know if they were really so bad] they confided, moving on to the next co-op rule with a shrug and a smile.

Which got me thinking.  Is there some hierarchy of Character that is simply understood amongst enlightened parents, or is the character ban really about something else?  What’s at the core of this objection, which I feel viscerally each time I change a princess pull-up?

I’m sure the lawyers of the Justice League could represent Superman and Spidey vs. Babar and Madeline and put them all in the same boat.  The prosecution rests on a tenuous central thesis – that commercial characters threaten a child’s capacity to imagine.  It’s Waldorf thinking taken to an extreme: if your child takes to Dora, Dolly dies.  Imagination only happens with wooden toys and faceless fairies.

(There’s another argument about protecting kids from predatory consumer culture, but we’ll just skip that for now.)

After some reflection, I don’t think we give kids enough credit in this scenario.  And we are a household with a similar ban, for similar reasons – just add the fact that most of these characters seem specifically designed to be exceptionally annoying to parents.

Some of the most physicaly and verbally capable, most outwardly imaginative, and enthusiastic toddlers I know have spent their days tickling Elmo, playing Power Rangers, and running around in character diapers (or Underoos®).  In a way, characters are just like people they meet – they have names, some elements of personality, and context.  I haven’t met many toddlers able to sit still enough to be spoonfed an entire character’s life story.  They take a nugget, and run with it.  Maybe not so bad after all.

Am I happy that the co-op restricts character-based content as a rule?  Sure – it means a quiet and consistent playspace with a high-end look to it and many excellent toys from the likes of Melissa & Doug and Plan Toys.

Am I opening the floodgates to mass commercial characters in my own home?  Not likely – I still prefer the company of Olivia and Pippi, “Broccoli Tiger” and “White Bunny.”  But if my kids want to imagine exploring with Dora, outside the diaper aisle, I won’t intervene.


In defense of characters and imagination, here’s a heart-warming story about a young Seattle boy taken on a superhero adventure by Make A Wish Foundation.

On the Princess Craze: What’s Wrong With Cinderella? from Peggy Orenstein of The New York Times (via excellent children’s lit blog


1 Response to "Characters In Context"

That daycare you’re using sounds better and better each day. I did grow up with Barbie (perhaps the most egregious example of the type character that a more thoughtful preschool may avoid), and came away from that experience (relatively) unscathed. That said, I have seen what characters are doing to our nieces and nephews. Those kids seem to have no capacity for creativity – their play consists of reenacting situations in the tv shows that made their beloved characters famous. Fault of commercialism, or of lazy parenting? I guess both.

To be honest, the idea of characters isn’t that offensive, it’s specific characters that drive me crazy. If my son wants to be fully decked out in Yo Gabba Gabba gear or have a room full of Totoro merch, then I will gladly start collwcting for him (in the case of Totoro, this collection started before he was conceived). I just won’t let him know about the more plebian characters as long as possible.

My neighbors are an ecologist and a hydrologist – real ecothinker types. Their 5 year old is obsessed with princesses and playing dress up. To their chagrin, this means they have a Disney-infiltrated household. Whaddayagonnado.

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