January 26, 2012


Princess Recovery: A How-To Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters. By Jennifer L. Hartstein, Psy.D. Adams Media. $21.95.

     Psychologist Jennifer Hartstein seems to think she has discovered that it is a bad thing for young girls to focus on how others perceive them and to expect a fairy-tale life in everything from clothing to romance. Memo to Hartstein: where have you been for the last, say, 40 years? The notion that girls and women should be more than adorable playthings awaiting Prince Charming has been around for so long that everyone from 1970s feminists to the Walt Disney Company (whose films long perpetuated the “princess” myth, although they did not create it) has taken notice and made substantial adjustments in child-rearing, education and even movies (just compare more-recent Disney animated characters, such as the book-loving Belle from Beauty and the Beast and hard-working Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, with Snow White and Cinderella from earlier films).

     Hartstein’s heart is in the right place, but she seems not to have wrapped her head around several decades of progress in feminine self-awareness – and child-rearing. So Princess Recovery tells parents of young girls (ages 2-8, broken down by Hartstein into 2-3, 4-5 and 6-8) to make sure their daughters appreciate both inner and outer beauty instead of prioritizing superficial appearance; help themselves and others instead of waiting for others to help them; do things “for the right reasons” rather than “for the appearance of perfection”; and define themselves by their own standards, not by the way others perceive them. This is quite unexceptionable advice – and quite unexceptional, even though Hartstein tries to pretty it up (a rather princess-y approach) by contrasting “the heroine” with “the princess.”

     There are glimmers of amusement and insight in Princess Recovery. The book’s dedication, for example, suggests that heroines “enjoy wearing your crown as you play in the mud,” and at one point Hartstein says parents can apply a corrective to romantic notions about being a princess by showing their daughters some real-world princesses and explaining how they live and all the things they have to do. On the other hand, Hartstein is enamored of the obvious: do not overschedule your daughter because “she needs some time to herself”; “set your daughter up for success”; “show her how to set boundaries”; “support her interests to the best of your ability”; “expose your daughter to all kinds of career options”; and so on – and on and on. All this is certainly well-meaning, but Hartstein writes as if she is the first person to come up with these very common and commonplace notions, and that becomes irritating after a while (a short while). Even the book’s title is a trifle “off,” implying that the book is for parents whose daughters are already in “princess mode” – when in fact Hartstein is offering an alternative to it (presumably The Princess Alternative would not have been considered as salable a title in the self-help field, but how about Better Than a Princess?).

     There is plenty of good advice in Hartstein’s book: “experiences age better than things,” “identify wants versus needs,” “make thoughtful choices,” and so forth. And Hartstein makes good, forthright recommendations on implementing the suggested approaches – in the “thoughtful choices” area, for instance, she says to create wish lists for yourself and your daughter, consider the desired items for an agreed-upon waiting period, decide what you need if you still want an item after that time has passed (“bonus or allowance money,” for example), and then make the purchase after budgeting for it both financially and psychologically. This is a good approach not only for children but also for adults; and indeed, Hartstein says, again and again, that parents need to model the behaviors they want to see in their daughters. “Combat materialism as a family,” she recommends at one point; “teach assertiveness rather than aggression,” at another; “evaluate your own moral values,” at yet another. Introspection, self-awareness and guidance – these are all excellent ideas, although none of them is even slightly new or unique to this book. Princess Recovery makes many good points, even though it is frequently over-earnest (a little fantasizing never hurt anyone) and has a greater-than-warranted sense of its own originality. Parents can get some useful thoughts from Hartstein, but they will have to leaven them with a sense of humor and a modicum of innovative thinking on their own.

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