Two Parenting Books: Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Free-Range Kids

I’ve been trying to post book reviews every Friday, but I completely missed this past one. I have a good excuse, though! My first child was born early on Saturday morning.

To commemorate the event in a way appropriate to this blog, here are my thoughts on two books I read while preparing for it.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter cover

Peggy Orenstein – Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter argues that girly-girl culture has gotten out of hand. While society has always treated girls and boys differently, Orenstein believes that it has reached a new extreme. In a casual style, recounting her own trips through malls, concerts, and board rooms, she paints a picture of how corporate marketing and parental indulgence has created a culture where every aspect of a girl’s life must be pink and fit for a princess. Despite talk about equality and girl power, Orenstein believes that we are teaching girls from birth to be helpless and disconnected from any practical thoughts about what their adult life will be like.

Orenstein doesn’t really sell her own point well, though. She portrays herself as a concerned parent just trying to make sense of the overwhelming influences around her to figure out what is best for her daughter. I can identify with that mindset, but I’m not writing a book on the subject. I wish she could come to a more definite conclusion. Instead, the book is mainly tied together with anecdotes about our culture and the occasional story of the frustrated, inconsistent way she tries to deal with her own daughter’s interests.

There are some effective parts. A chapter on child beauty pageants avoids blaming those involved and instead presents them as an extension of our everyday focus on dress-up and fashion. Some sections that focus on corporate trends (especially the recent, and lucrative, “Disney Princesses” branding effort) make a great case that these trends are increasing, and starting at younger ages, because of marketing efforts.

Mostly, though, this book failed to give me any great insight or arguments for Orenstein’s thesis, even though I agreed with her before I read it. In fact, the book did a lot to make me less concerned about this as an issue: Plenty of the stories reminded me of events from my own childhood, reassuring me that things have always been this way, and kids still grow up ok. That argument is the very one that Orenstein needs to argue against most clearly. But instead, it just shows her fumbling around, failing to reach a conclusion, and seeing her own daughter find her way through the “princess phase” without any need for worries.

Free-Range Kids cover

Lenore Skenazy – Free-Range Kids

In contrast, Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids movement has a much more well-defined diagnosis and list of suggestions. Skenazy’s main concern is that we overreact to every minor chance that our children could get hurt, and our well-intentioned changes to protect them from strangers and accidents are robbing them of their childhoods. Ironically, this presents new risks (obesity, lack of confidence, over-reliance on parents) that are much more likely than the freak accidents we feel we must prevent. Let your children play outside beyond eyesight, go trick-or-treating, and make their own plans, Skenazy says, and the skinned knees you can’t prevent will be part of a memorable, educational, and still safe, childhood.

She keeps a blog about this subject, mainly filled with letters from like-minded parents, that I can highly recommend. It’s sensible, topical, and maybe most amazingly, has a great comments section. Most parenting message boards are depressing even by the normal standards of internet comments, with parents tearing each other down and assigning blame for everything that does (or could) go wrong. In contrast, the positive, confident contributors to the Free-Range Kids site are a great indicator of how healthy this movement is.

She fumbles a bit in the book, though. It’s still very much worth reading, but when given the opportunity to provide an introduction/manifesto for the topics her website covers, Skenazy didn’t have a great plan. The bulk of the book, “The Fourteen Free-Range Commandments”, feature sections that sometimes seem repetitive and space-filling. Many examples are great, but others seem like exaggerations as crazy as the culture she derides. Her stories about the things children survived in the past or in other countries make the point that kids are incredibly resilient, but she glosses over their stresses and high death rates. Though she says that of course she doesn’t advocate those exact systems, and her own personal anecdotes make her seem rational and protective at appropriate times, those sections will probably convince some people that she’s not taking dangers seriously.

It might actually be best to start with the last third of the book. The “Safe Or Not?” section, which runs through an encyclopedic list of parents’ fears and provides facts for each one, it a lot more amusing and readable than it sounds. It’s followed by an essay (“Strangers With Candy”) and conclusion that zero right in on the main points that I felt were obscured by the rest of the book. That essay repeats some material from earlier, meaning that it was probably intended to be published separately, but it also means that it works as a convincing, stand-alone read. After being hooked by that, the fleshed-out material in the rest of the book might work better to reinforce the points.

I read both these books a couple months ago, and time has reinforced my initial impressions. I still have no firm conclusion about the ideas expressed in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, while the lessons of Free-Range Kids have stuck with me, reinforced by the blog and by daily events it primed me to notice. That book may have its structural flaws, but in the end the points came through well for me.


Cinderella Ate My Daughter: C

Free-Range Kids: B+

    • From an ink smeared page
    • December 3rd, 2012

    Congrat’s on the birth of your child!

    • Thank you! We’re very happy (although tired, of course).
      I know it’s not going to be more priority, but I’m hoping to get the chance for some extra blogging while I’m home from work over the next few weeks. Today I figured out how to type while holding her…

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