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LJ Idol week 20: Playing House

“Those two don’t like each other, so they have to stay in different rooms of the house.”

My niece is seven years old. I see her on average twice a year since I live in a different state than my brother and his family. But when I do go to their house, she and I always end up in the corner of the finished basement playing with her Barbie dolls.

Sara has a lot of Barbie dolls, along with the convertible, a big house with moveable furniture, and several animal friends. My sister-in-law checks out the garage sales in the summer to add to the collection. (I shudder to think how much all of it would have cost new.) But Sara doesn’t mind that the dolls are previously loved, each new one gets a place in the story.

“He is her brother and this is the guy she likes. You can tell them apart because his eyes are different.”

The story is complex. Some of the dolls are siblings, some rivals; some are dating (whatever that means to a seven year old). At least one gets car sick and so always has to ride the horse if they’re going somewhere else. One of the dolls is officially a grandmother since her daughter has the twin babies, but she looks like she's in her mid-20’s and does nothing but work out - just like all the rest of them.

“She only likes to wear dresses. And he can’t wear anything green.”

There is a huge basket of clothes. I suddenly remember why I was never that into Barbie dolls when I was a kid. The clothes are small and difficult to get on and off. I do enjoy mixing and matching the outfits to put together crazy ensembles that no one would actually wear. Sara just sighs at me, and straightens things out to her liking. Certain skirts and tops have to go together. The non-princess dolls can’t wear princess clothes, and some siblings always need to be in matching outfits.

I know I frustrate Sara when we play. I don’t follow all of the rules, or know the stories. I try to put dresses on boy dolls, or give everyone mismatched shoes. I let her lead the storytelling and costuming as much as possible,though. I remember being seven and needing the world to fit a certain pattern. I remember being the one to correct the adults who were doing things wrong and getting them back on track.

I wonder when things change. Kids, especially once they’ve started school, develop such a sense of how things are ‘supposed’ to be. The social monolith of school reinforces that different is bad. No one escapes it, and seven is only the beginning. It gets worse as we approach high school. When I was in middle school my mom and the neighbor lady walked down Main Street wearing the Halloween masks they had just bought at the sidewalk sale in July. Halloween masks. In July. On Main Street. I was mortified, and they just laughed at me and invited me to be silly with them. But I couldn’t do it; it was too weird and strange.  Even if it did look like fun.

Now I would wear the mask, and probably embarrass my niece. I don’t know exactly when or why I regained the ability to be silly without being afraid of being different. Some people never outgrow the need for everything to be exactly right and ‘normal’, some of us learn to revel in the ridiculous and strange. I know that pushing my niece now won’t change anything, and it’s not worth spoiling the little bit of time we have together. Besides, she still surprises me now and then.

“Okay, now they’re all going to fly to go and get pizza.”
“Well the car and the horse will stay on the ground, but everyone else has to get there too. Only three of them can fly at a time, though. The pizza place is on the corner of the couch.”

I fly the dolls three at a time, wearing their matching outfits, across the room to the corner of the couch for the pizza party. Later that afternoon when Sara is helping her mom bake a cake for dinner, I change all of the dolls’ shoes. I grin knowing that the next time Sara goes down into the corner of the basement to play with her dolls she’s going to shake her head at her crazy aunt and then put them all back, the way they’re supposed to be.

***This is my entry for week 20 of LJ Idol, the topic was ‘playing house’. If there’s a poll this week, I’ll post a link to it when it goes up. ***

lol. This sounds like so much fun.

I really wish I lived closer so we could do it more often. Thanks for reading.

What I love most about this is your effort to break your neice out of her box of what is supposed to be happening. Your attempts to show her that being different is okay. <3

Yeah, I also gave my niece a truck for her first birthday, and my nephew a doll. I'll have to get creative for the twins when they turn one this summer. I think Sara is likely to turn out to be more popular and mainstream than I ever was which is great, I just want her to know there are other options if she needs them. Thanks.

heh, you play barbies like I do!

Playing them 'right' isn't ever as much fun as just messing with them.

This is adorable. I'm sure your niece loves you being silly!

Aw thanks. If nothing else, it means I get to leave a bit of myself behind when I leave.

Awww, I used to LOVE Barbies, it sure would be fun to play them again. I never did fly my dolls though...;)

I always preferred my baby dolls to Barbies, though it may be that I just didn't have enough Barbies to tell the stories in my head. The day Sara said the dolls would all fly just made me happy.

Thanks! This story got into my head for this prompt and wouldn't get out, so I figured it was one that needed telling.

Aw! I remember playing barbies when I was a girl, and I never understood all the silly rules my cousins had. I wanted things to be fun. ;)

I'm not sure why barbies seem to come with rules. I'm all in favor of the fun.

Hehe, all my dolls were customized to be native americans, or possibly spies. I never could understand why the other kids played such boring games with their dolls. Like having them do things that they could do in real life!

Heh, I like that. How much more fun to play space mission instead of simply house.

I wasn't allowed to have Barbies as a kid, but I played a lot the way Sara does with my dolls and paper dolls, and with my seashells which were actually the students in a one-room schoolhouse.

I remember being eight years old and being able to dump out the seashells and put them in exactly the same order every time. I remember being able to organize my paper dolls into the same families every time. But I couldn't tell you what those were now.

The thing is that I didn't ever care for social rules, so I'm not sure how much it has to do with that, really. I did care about my play rules.

I really liked this!

Wow, I love that your school of seashells (which sounds like it should be a tongue twister) was so organized. I only had one barbie and one entirely awesome Marie Osmond barbie-type doll, Mom didn't forbid them but she certainly discouraged them.

I think maybe when we're seven or eight being so specific in our play is our way of being able to be in control of something.

What a great story! I did the same type of thing with the Barbie's at my grandma's house. I had My Little Ponies at home with more intricate stories, and my kid's meal mr. potato head dolls HAD to have the correct ears and feet on the correct potato or else they couldn't play. I think my mom intentionally mixed them up, too. XD

I only ever had two My Little Ponies though oh did I want more. I love that your Mr. potato head had to be just so, I'm sure otherwise he was someone else who wouldn't play the same.

Thanks for reading!

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I didn't realize that there was actually a developmental state for girls about following the rules but it makes sense, it seems like a lot of us went through that in grade school, and it is tough that you got denied that.

I would never say anything about the way Sara herself dresses (though wow am I personally glad she's through the everything needs to be powder pink phase). But I take your point, that it may not be the right time to start pushing at the boundaries she's set up. Thanks for reading, and for the thoughtful response.

How funny! I used to frustrate my little sister by making Ken walk on his head. She failed to see the humor in it.

Once I found out the dolls could fly I started trying to fly them everywhere, but apparently they can only fly for pizza. I may have to try them walking on their heads next time.

Aww, this was a very sweet story.

Now I wonder where my Barbie doll collection is!

My Barbie's are long gone in a garage sale. However, the last time I was home I found my collection of strawberry shortcake dolls. After so many years of being stored together they all smell like fruit salad.


I loved this :) and so true ... my mom and aunts would do stupid things that embarrassed the hell out of me ... those same things I would probably do now though without blinking! I wonder when the rules change.

Yeah, I wish I could figure out exactly where the line is from embarrassed to being the one to embarass. My mom has four sisters, all of them together was always an adventure, one I've learned to appreciate. Thanks so much!

It's great you're trying to show her she doesn't have to fit a mould to live. Wish someone would have thought me that. I had a huge Barbie collection when I was little, and it always had to be played with .exactly. in the 'same' way. Except my one friend who always managed to make the coolest stories with the 'leftovers' (because she didn't want to play 'correctly'). I envied her, secretly.

Aw, thanks. I love my sister-in-law but she's very aware of the social norms. So I try to mess with things a bit when I'm home just to make sure the kids know there are other options.