What I Learned About Parenting From Finally Getting My American Girl Doll

Note: Most posts are co-written but this is obviously Robin’s own experience. Tim just edited and asked questions.

When I was a little girl, I desperately wanted an American Girl doll.  This was back before there were less expensive knock offs available at Target so in general, at least in my part of the country, you had an American Girl doll or you had a much smaller and less loveable doll available at Toys’R’Us whose hair wasn’t especially brushable and whose body was not at all poseable. 

In this article, we’ll cover:

No American Girl Doll for Me

But my family could not afford an American Girl doll.  My sister and I poured over the catalogues and the doll with wanted (I wanted Kirsten, she wanted Molly).  A child several blocks away had grandparents who bought her the Samantha doll and every single accessory and we’d go play with her sometimes and her doll empire would fill the entire living and dining rooms.  I asked my doting grandma for an American Girl doll and she had me calculate how expensive it was compared to other toys (she’s also the one who taught me to calculate tips and tax).  

And then my mom was very excited for my birthday to come.  Very secretive.  I knew it couldn’t be the doll I wanted but something was up.  When I opened the box I saw a doll with blonde hair and blue eyes (like the Kirsten doll) and dressed in the same pink gingham outfit as the Kirsten doll.  But it wasn’t the Kirsten doll.  It was a smaller, cheaper doll that she’d sewn new clothes for.  It wasn’t the doll I wanted.  But it was a doll that was trying really hard to be the doll I wanted.  

I had a choice.  I could fuss about not getting the real Kirsten doll or I could revel in the fact that I was the only kid on my block with a reasonable approximation.  I was thrilled. I could change her clothes and bring her to play with the Samantha doll.  

Finally Owning an American Girl Doll

But there was still a little piece of me that yearned for that Kirsten doll.  Years later when I was a junior in college, I was driving through a neighborhood near my university and saw A REAL KIRSTEN DOLL in a garage sale, the doll I always wanted.  She was naked except for the striped socks, but I knew her immediately.  Hadn’t I spent hours looking at her picture in catalogues?  I stopped and gave the woman $5 and took my doll into the car.  I was surprised to find myself crying.  I finally had my doll.  I held her all the way to class, hid her while I was in class so she wouldn’t get stolen, and took her home with me at the end of the day.  I enjoyed having her around for a little while but I ended up packing her up.  I couldn’t afford her clothes and wasn’t in the mood to sew knock-offs.  I wanted the real thing.

It wasn’t until my daughter received an American Girl doll from her doting grandma (Tim’s mom) that I realized just how much it meant to me.  The little girls at our church will often bring their dolls to keep them company during Sunday school and the church service and then leave them with “grandma” (as Eleanor’s mom, I’m her doll’s grandma) to go play. My mom found a couple American Girl dresses at a thrift store including an actual Kirsten birthday dress, the one she sewed a copy of when I was a little girl.  I dressed my garage sale Kirsten doll in the dress from the thrift store.  I held her and cried again.  She was the real thing, the doll I’d always wanted.  

And then one day, my daughter insisted that we both bring our dolls to church.  As a mom I can get away with things like bringing my doll to church and no one thinks I’m strange.  So I brought Kirsten.  I could feel all sorts of shifting feelings inside me as I sat there holding the doll I always wanted. The pastor’s daughter is in my daughter’s Sunday school and typically gets to choose where she sits.  She’ll visit with various families, commenting on various aspects of the service and chattering with her friends. On this day she happened to sit with us and happened to have her doll.  My son’s friend from ballet who typically sits right behind us happened to have her doll that day.  

So there I was, sitting with three other little girls and their dolls, feeling like a little girl with her doll.  I relaxed into the pew, holding the doll in my lap, stroking her braids, arranging her skirt.  And the other little girls left for the children’s program during the sermon and asked me to take care of their charges.  So I was left with three dolls. 

I put my doll next to their dolls in the space left where they had been sitting.  My doll was just right.  She looked like the other dolls, the right height, the right proportions, the right clothes.  She sat up nicely like the other dolls and didn’t slump over like my childhood knock off.  

What About the Doll I Don’t Love as Much?

But what about my Kirsten doll my mom gave me as a child, the one who was too small and not poseable?  Shouldn’t I love her best because of all the love and time my mom put into making her?  And the many happy hours I spent playing with her?

Isn’t it a good thing that dolls aren’t sensient? That my unappreciated doll isn’t feeling the effects of my emotional neglect?

Let Go of the Guilt and Move Forward

If you’re realizing that this has happened with your parenting, the most important first step is to let go of the guilt and move forward.  Kids are resilient and guilt never helped anyone do a better job.  You don’t choose your feelings.  But keep reading for some tips on how to start shifting those feelings.

If this isn’t you, if you’re like I was before my experience with the Kirsten doll and you don’t understand how parents can “be like that,” see if you can think of something you wanted really badly when you were a kid and an inadequate alternative that was offered by an adult.  Maybe it was the off-brand Legos that some well-meaning aunt gave you that you couldn’t use with the rest of your set.  Maybe it was an ugly homemade cake when you were hoping for the fancy store bought version.  Maybe it was a particular pair of shoes, a good quality microscope, or a non-embarrassing car to drive to high school.  Really linger on that feeling you had of wanting THE PERFECT THING.  Did it help to have other people reason with you?  Tell you to be grateful for the thing you got instead of the thing you wanted?

Ideas that Might Help

These ideas are all excerpted from our article, Letting Go Of Your Dream Child to Love the Child You Have and you can read them in more detail there.

  • Fill your mind with the stories of delightful, wonderful, creative, happy people who are like your child.  
  • Pay attention to your child’s special interests and recognize that there are plenty of adults with those same special interests or comparable ones.  
  • Visualize your child in the future they may have rather than the future you may have wanted for them.  Imagine being proud of your child’s passion for the subject and telling your friends at the senior center (or on a cruise or however you dream of your life going) all about your child. What interests and hobbies does your child have where they can find their version of happiness?  Is it computers? Music? Martial arts? Archery? If you don’t know what that might be, read the article on Finding and Nurturing Your Child’s Special Interests .
  • Come up with some positive SOCOs (Single Overriding Communication Objectives) to describe your child and start telling other parents and family members about it. 
  • Tell funny stories that show your child in a positive light and laugh about it. 
  • Create an interesting environment where your child thrives. 
  • Make small changes that help you see your child in a positive light. Cute pajamas, a family tradition they can manage, or watching them while they are asleep are all methods that have helped me.
  • Don’t spend too much time with neurotypical families who have different goals and values than your own.  You’ll just end up feeling bad about yourself. 
  • Find people just as quirky and creative as your family.  We’ve met a lot of really interesting people who think my kids are wonderful.  It helps us see them as wonderful, too.

Have you had any experiences that helped you realize something about your parenting?

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