I have two naked Barbie dolls on the stool beside my bed. They’re identical, except the one has a broken arm. They’ve been there on that stool for the past seven years. But before you let your imagination run wild, writing me off as some kind of perv, let me explain.
My youngest daughter, Ally, was in 8th grade and had to do some sort of math assignment involving props brought in from home. She went into the basement, grabbed her favorite childhood Barbie doll, and took it in to class the next day. The following week, she came home from school looking bothered by something, so I asked her what was up. She pulled the Barbie out of her backpack and showed me. Barbie in one hand. Barbie’s left forearm in the other. Apparently one of my daughter’s friends was trying to be “funny”, which is often teenage code for acting like an asshole. Whatever “funny” thing this friend did involved throwing the Barbie down hard on the floor at the end of class. She landed on her elbow joint and the forearm snapped off.
Ally didn’t think it was funny. Even though she hadn’t played Barbies in years, she had great memories and a sentimental attachment to this one. Plus, the damage was completely preventable. She was bummed out and confused as to what this friend was trying to accomplish and why she did something so thoughtless.
So I did what any Dad would do. I tried to fix it. Not just the Barbie, but the whole situation. My skills as a household handyman are laughable, but I’m much better at personal issues and social relationship stuff. Wanting to “fix it” is instinctual for parents, and rarely was I unable to at least improve the situation.
So after helping Ally sort out her feelings about her classmate, I set out to repair Barbie’s arm. Unsuccessfully. Good old Gorilla Glue didn’t work because there wasn’t a good contact point. Mechanical fixes didn’t work because the little elbow joint was too small and unique to be replaced with anything else. So I searched the internet for a new Barbie to simply replace the broken one. In the process, I discovered that this particular model was pretty popular, part of a somewhat limited collection that attracted lots of attention and very high bid prices on eBay. Yikes.
So I put Barbie on the shelf for a few weeks, checked eBay the following month, and won a more reasonable yet still overpriced auction on replacement Barbie.
“Sweet!” I thought. “I’ll just switch out one-armed Barbie, replace her with the twin, and all is good. Problem solved!” Ally appreciated my efforts, but the new doll just didn’t have the same value to her as the original one. It wasn’t all about appearances though. Ally and the original had grown up together. That wasn’t replaceable. “But it’s ok”. she said. Ally was ready to move on, putting her damaged favorite back down in the basement Barbie bin until her future kids came by the grandparents house to play with Mom’s old toys.
I wasn’t as ready to move on as Ally. I still felt the need to fix it. So I schemed up a DIY arm graft surgery where I replaced original Barbie’s broken arm with a good arm from the new, donor Barbie. I even tried some YouTube research to see if I could learn from somebody else’s experience. But it didn’t work. The repair job was too fine and exact for my previously mentioned, laughable handyman skills.
Beaten but not defeated, I put both dolls on the stool beside my bed. That’s where I always put the most urgent projects on my to-do list. That’s also where the dolls have remained for the past 7 years. And, that was when those two Barbies started their daily reminder to me about parenting. The lesson is the same every day.
The lesson is this: I can’t fix everything for my kids. Neither can you for your kids. And even though that feels bad, it really is a good thing. We can’t learn to solve problems if we don’t have any. We can’t develop resilience if we never struggle through difficulties. We can’t develop maturity and empathy if we’re always protected from the realities of life.
At some point our kids are going to be grown adults, having to deal with life like the rest of us. It’s our job as parents, to equip them for that task as best we can. That means being present but not overbearing (a nice rain helps plants grow but a flood wipes them out). It means helping them to succeed without enabling a sense of entitlement (helping kids with homework is different than doing it for them). It means allowing them to experience the unpleasantries of life without drowning in them (vaccines may inject patients with disease, but not enough to sicken).
Tough experiences that don’t kill us make us stronger. But if we have no tough experiences we won’t be very strong. Of course our parental instinct is to prevent our kids from suffering, but we have to work against ourselves enough to allow them to develop into high functioning adults.
Barbies broken arm wasn’t really that big a deal, but it symbolized something that is. We can’t fix all of our kid’s problems. That’s ok, and we should be ok with it.
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