Two Things I Learned About My Daddying from Barbie and Skipper
Updated: Aug 2
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy and Founder, DCG and the Daddying Film Festival & Forum (D3F)
EDITOR'S NOTE: While I did have the opportunity to go see the new Barbie Movie this past week, this is not a review of Greta Gerwig's runaway hit film. I do, however, commend the film for the opportunities it presents for important discussions about a wide range of key issues, one of our main motivations for creating the Daddying Film Festival & Forum (D3F), as well as the fun of its staging and casting. But if you'd like to view a more in-depth review, we recommend checking out D3F Circle of Friends member KIDS FIRST!'s perspective provided by one of their trained youth film critics Zoe X.
There were a few days back in 1975, that I just couldn’t figure out some unusual new behavior by my three young daughters (9, 7, and 5 years old). They were walking around our house rotating their arms.
Because this new behavior began shortly after a visit from their grandfather, my dad, I wondered if there was a connection. My father visited us in Connecticut from his New York City home, about twice/year. His car was always overflowing with the newest Barbie items because he had visited his friend at Mattel en route to our home.
On this particular visit, the bounty included the latest in the Barbie arsenal, Growing Up Skipper, Barbie's younger sister. Skipper became an instant favorite with my daughters. They eagerly showed me that when they rotated Skipper's arms she would grow from young girl to teenager in seconds: she'd get taller, become slimmer, and develop boobs.
So I learned – okay, I was reminded – how important it is to carefully observe your children, to seize parenting moments that may be uniquely teachable, and to take your children as seriously as they take themselves.
Being a dad of three girls during the midst of the Women's Rights Movement presented a variety of opportunities and challenges – Barbie, and her idealized version of what a woman should look like and the limited opportunities she had in the workforce in the 1970’s provided fertile opportunities for discussion geared to my daughters' stages of development. And observing their play with their Barbies – and the opportunity it provided them to feel a sense of control while being oblivious to the subtle messages Barbie was giving them about femininity – provided me a window into their thoughts and the cultural messages they were picking up.
The second thing I learned was less directly associated with Barbie, per se, and more about my father's visits, always with a car full of presents. I learned about the tricky dynamics between parents and grandparents and the need for me to set clear limits on bringing gifts – and make it clear in my family that parent trumps grandparent. This lesson has served me well now that I'm the grandfather of five!
Although establishing those limits was difficult, given the personalities involved, it led to clear boundaries moving forward. Here’s how it played out:
ME: "Dad, please don't bring a carload of toys every time you visit. As you can see, my daughters have plenty of toys. And down the road you'll wonder if your granddaughters are happy to see you or just happy about the toys." MY FATHER: "I’m the grandfather and I can do what I want."
Predictably, the next visit included another car full of stuff. ME: "Dad, I asked you nicely not to bring stuff." And I explained why. MY FATHER: "I’m the grandfather and I can do what I want." ME: "If you arrive next time with a car full of stuff, it will be very awkward for all of us because the kids will not be allowed to accept it. We will have had a discussion beforehand about what other families we know who are not as fortunate in terms of having lots of toys. And your granddaughters will decide who we'll be giving the toys to."
Predictably, the next visit was with another car full of stuff. Together with our daughters we told my father that we had decided to give this batch of toys to our refuse collector's children.
The next visit, my father arrived without a car full of gifts – just a few cookies.
So, thanks, Barbie, for providing such excellent opportunities to clarify important parenting lessons.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life's work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019, he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He has conducted daddying workshops in such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, penitentiaries, Head Start centers, corporate boardrooms, and various elementary schools, signifying the widespread interest in men in becoming the best possible dad. In 2022, Allan founded and co-directed the Daddying Film Festival & Forum to enable students, dads, and other indie filmmakers to use film as a vehicle to communicate the importance of fathers or father figures in each others' lives. Allan earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D and GRAND D-A-D the most important “degrees” of all.