It's a question that can cause tension and tears in a circle of home-school moms in a Bible Belt church fellowship hall. It's a question that can have the same jarring impact in a circle of feminist mothers in a Manhattan coffee shop.
Here it is: Will you buy your daughter a Barbie doll? Other questions follow in the wake of this one, linked to clothes, self esteem, cellphones, makeup, reality TV shows and the entire commercialized princess culture.
The Barbie question is not uniquely religious, which is one reason why it can be so symbolic for mothers and daughters in liberal as well as conservative circles.
Yet questions about religion, morality, health, culture, education, sexuality and, of course, "family values," loom in the background, noted Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is best known for her writing on faith, education and the lives of modern young people. Many parents simply worry about the powerful forces that keep pushing their daughters -- as experts put it -- to "grow older, younger."
"Mothers are divided on this whole issue and some can get very upset just talking about it. Yet others are not upset," noted Riley. "You'll see all kinds of women, religious and non-religious, who taking their 6-year-old daughters to get manicures and to get their hair done, trying to look pretty just like the girls on TV and in all the magazines.
"Then there are women who are the total opposite of all that. They may be evangelical Christians or they may be feminists, but they see this as an attack on what they believe."
Barbie dolls are not the only products that define this dilemma, but they are highly symbolic. In an essay for the journal Books & Culture, Riley noted the power of a story recounted in "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture," a book by feminist Peggy Orenstein. The anecdote begins with her filmmaker husband approving a Barbie purchase for their young daughter.
"I demanded that he take it away from her. She started to cry. So I gave it back," wrote Orenstein.
The parents argued some more and the Barbie went back on the Target shelf.
At that point the debate evolved into a clash over quality. Orenstein explained: "I promised I would get her a well-made Barbie instead, perhaps a Cleopatra Barbie I had seen on eBay, which, at the very least, was not white or blond and had something to offer besides high-heeled feet. As if the ankh pendant and peculiar tan made it all okay."
The daughter began crying and said, "Never mind, Mama. ... I don't need it."
Many mothers will tear up reading those lines, said Riley, because the scene is so familiar and can be triggered by so many products in shopping malls and just about anywhere on cable television. Moms may be urged to buy a pink Ouija board ("Who will text me next?") or a Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition. They can dive into the parallel universe of Disney Princess products for toddlers, tweens, teens and young women ("Disney Bridal Gowns: Have a Disney Princess Wedding"). The list goes on and on.
Then there are the television shows. Riley, who has a 4-year-old daughter, noted that the style and content are essentially the same -- whether the stars are preschoolers or aged veterans such as Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry. These shows lead young viewers into the world of reality television, with offerings ranging from "Teen Mom" to "Bridezillas," from "Jersey Shore" to "Say Yes to the Dress."
Once again, these subjects are just as likely to be discussed by girls gossiping after a suburban church service as by those chatting at the local mall.
This commercialized, highly sexualized culture, said Riley, has become the dominant culture. The question is whether parents dare to challenge it.
"There's more to this than parents trying to be countercultural," she said. "The big question is whether they will -- for religious reasons or whatever -- dare to take a stand and say, 'I have a right to be THE major influence in the lives of my children.' ...
"It's hard to say that, in this day and age. It takes a certain amount of courage for a mom to say, 'Look, I don't think padded bras are appropriate for 10-year-olds.' "