God, Barbies and girlie girls

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.' "

Mama says, 'Go to church'

Here's a rather predictable news flash: American mothers want the fathers of their children to stick around, help with the kids and go to church. There's something else that united the participants in "Mama Says," a recent survey from the National Fatherhood Initiative -- 93 percent of them believe America is suffering from what researchers called a "father absence crisis." An earlier survey by the non-partisan group found that 91 percent of American fathers affirm that stark judgment.

The survey didn't include many religious questions, but the role of faith in American homes and marriages kept rising to the surface.

"What the religious questions revealed to us is that the mothers who were the most religious were consistently the mothers who were the most satisfied with the jobs that their men were doing as fathers," said Vincent DiCaro of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which is based in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. "If you look at the whole survey, it's clear that mothers think that strong religious values help dads be better dads."

If there was a surprise in the survey, he said, it was the high value that American mothers in general placed on "churches and other communities of faith" when it came time to name resources that could help fathers improve their parenting skills.

As expected, "very religious" mothers were strongly pro-church. However, the value of fathers seeking parenting help from religious institutions also received a "very important" nod from 72 percent of the mothers who said they were "not very religious" and from 58 percent of those who called themselves "not at all religious."

The "very religious" mothers in this survey were different in other ways, too.

They were more likely -- 69 percent compared to 51 percent for others -- to believe that mass media consistently portray fathers in a negative light.

The "very religious" mothers also seemed to value what the researchers called "communitarian" values, while less religious respondents offered more "individualistic" views on parenting issues. This was consistent with the views of "very religious" fathers in an earlier study.

Finally, added DiCaro, the mothers who identified themselves as "very religious" were the ones "who continue to believe that the role that fathers play in the home is irreplaceable. ... The really religious mothers are the only group that still feels that way, which is certainly a comment about how many people view fathers in America, today."

Since the survey focused on the beliefs and perceptions of mothers, it didn't provide new information about the actual role that religious faith plays in the faithfulness and effectiveness of the fathers themselves, both in their roles as parents and husbands. It did not attempt to show cause and effect.

"Still, it is of some interest that the higher the religiosity of the mother, the higher, on average, was her evaluation of the parenting of the father," noted sociologist Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, one of the authors of the final report. "I think it is reasonable to assume that the reason for that is that the more religious mothers generally were, or had been, married to men who were also high in religiosity.

"This relationship held even when the parents were no longer living together, and this suggests that religiosity helps men be better fathers even when they don't live with their children or the mothers of their children."

Woven through the entire study was the painful reality that, for many American mothers, brokenness has become the new reality in their homes.

For example, 84 percent of married mothers said they were "very or somewhat satisfied" with the parenting of the fathers they were evaluating. However, that number sank to 23 percent when the mothers and fathers were not living together. This is, the researchers concluded, the reason why the rate of satisfaction that African-American mothers expressed when evaluating fathers was only half that of white mothers.

It is easy to find the bottom line in this survey, said DiCaro.

"It is undeniable that the most satisfied mothers were those who had fathers who were living with them, under the same roof with their children," he said. "Once again, marriage is the great equalizer, and that's true for blacks, whites, Latinos and everybody. It certainly equalizes how fathers do as fathers, at least in the eyes of the mothers."