Play, we are told, is how children learn.
Asking parents to play with their children seems, on the surface, simple enough. Most of us can toss a baseball on a sunny afternoon. Some of us can get down on the floor and put together Lincoln Logs. A few can get through a game of Chutes and Ladders.
But what if they ask us to play . . . Barbies?
"It's almost beyond the call of duty," said one Los Angeles mother. She'll do puzzles. Read books. Play computer games. Even hide-and-seek. But Barbies, she said, "are real tough."
The one time she agreed, she said her daughter had to give her a crash course in Barbie Play 101: \o7 You talk for Ken. I talk for Barbie. We put on her dress. She goes to the party.\f7
"I wanted to cross my eyes and die," the mother said.
According to M.G. Lord, author of "Forever Barbie" (William Morrow, 1994), a pattern has persisted since Barbie, a glamorous knockoff of a pornographic German toy, appeared 35 years ago: Girls love her, mothers hate her.
"In the early market research, she looked like a mother's worst nightmare of what her husband's secretary was going to look like," Lord said. "Even now, she functions as a scapegoat for women's complicated feelings about femininity."
Needless to say, some mothers object to Barbie as a symbol of sex-object messages they received as children. Even as the President of the United States, an astronaut or a CEO, she remains a bimbo with a fancy job title. International and multicultural Barbies help, but still, some fear the impossibly thin figure may aggravate eating disorders. Or that it is just too sexy for 3-year-olds.
But considering Lord's estimate that two Barbies are sold every second on the planet, it's clear that someone is capitulating--and it's not the kids.
Even Helen Seigel is mellowing. She's a Laguna Niguel artist who last year wrote "NBP (No Barbies Please)" on birthday party invitations for her twin girls.
After overhearing one daughter tell the other, "You know Mommy and Daddy don't like Barbies," Seigel felt the need to explain how they believed Barbie wasn't a good role model. What she learned was "it's really ridiculous trying to explain these things to 5-year-olds. When kids see Barbie, they don't say she represents a vacuous woman whose only concern is with her appearance. This is really an adult issue."
In fact, Lord said smart kids she observed didn't play stupid games with their Barbie dolls. They used the dolls as a repertory company of actors in dramas they created, produced and directed themselves. "Also, all the good roles are for women," she observed. While sometimes Ken may be the judge of a beauty contest, more often his only role is as a valet parking attendant.
Some say they learn a lot about what is going on in their children's world by observing how they play with the dolls. Watching her friends' children play Barbies, Lord said, she frequently learns more than she wants to about their parents' marital conflicts.
Play is so significant to children's growth and development that the Los Angeles Unified School District devotes one of every 10 sessions in its free parenting classes to the topic, said Carolyn Herron, parenting consultant for the LAUSD.
One problem is that some parents never had dolls when they were kids and simply don't know the requirements of make-believe play--how to exercise their imaginations--or even that it's OK to play, she said.
The best way for parents to be involved is to observe how the kids are playing and then enter into the action they've created.
Parents might wish their children preferred baby dolls. Or grasped gender politics. Or understood that the money they put out for Barbie and accessories is probably better spent on a Lamborghini.
But children don't understand.
So when they ask you to play--even if it's Barbies--you have to do it, Herron said. You talk yourself through it by remembering your overriding motivation, she said. "You say, 'My child enjoys it and what I'm doing is spending time with her.' "
Then you set a timer for 15 minutes. Max.
* Do you have a question, a dilemma, an aggravation or--best of all--a solution that might help other families of the '90s? Please write to Lynn Smith, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif., 90053.