My daughters recently discovered Cinderella and the rest of the Disney Princesses, and within a few days they were obsessed. We read the stories on a daily basis, they’ve seen the Cinderella movie, and when they play, there’s a lot of “discussion” about who gets to be Cinderella and who has to be the prince.
The egalitarian feminist social worker in me is a bit horrified; I don’t love the idea of my daughters learning that the way to a better life is being swept off your feet by a handsome man. After the first twenty readings of Cinderella, I realized that I had two choices: I could either suffer through the books time and again, or I could apply what I’ve been learning about mindfulness to story time.
So, I tried to suspend my judgment and just be present. Instead of obsessing over all of the negative messages my daughters might be getting about female empowerment or body image, I decided to just read, notice, and accept. I focused on the feeling of my daughters next to me, the innocent curiosity of their questions, the colorful images on each page and the weight of the book in my lap. After a few readings, I started to notice some different, more positive messages emerging from the story of Cinderella. Is it possible that I was learning about mindfulness from a Disney princess?
I think it is possible, and here they are:
Bad things happen, and sometimes people do mean things. This is my kid-friendly version of one of the basic teachings of Buddhism: life is suffering. Every time we read the book, my daughters want to know why Cinderella’s step-mother is so cruel, why she makes Cinderella live in a tiny, dirty room in the attic, and why they make her work so hard. Their questions are reasonable, and the social worker in me is tempted to offer all sorts of possible answers, but the better lesson here is that bad things happen and sometimes people do mean things. Once we can accept that, we can figure out how to respond.
Children are resilient. Cinderella endured the death of both of her parents, as well as terrible mistreatment at the hands of her step-family. Yet she never lost hope, and she remained kind and calm. Perhaps it was her temperament; perhaps she experienced “good enough” parenting before her mother and father died. I certainly hope that my daughters never have to endure what Cinderella did, but I also try to remember that people, especially children, are often stronger than we give them credit for. We can overcome much of what life throws our way.
Our attitudes matter. Cinderella had a choice. She could have either spent her days wallowing in self-pity or raging at her step-family, but instead she accepted her situation without judgment, focused on the small joys of her life, and remained hopeful about the future. I’m no Cinderella, and I’m not saying that the appropriate response to all of life’s challenges is to sing a cheerful song and play with wild mice. I do believe, however, that we can choose how to respond to the hard moments and difficult relationships that we all face in life. Our attitude makes a difference, for ourselves and our children.
Money and stuff can’t make you happy. We all know this one, but it’s worth repeating. Cinderella’s step-sisters, Anastasia and Drizella, were spoiled by their step-mother, yet they were cruel and vain. They had everything they wanted, but they had no perspective on their good fortune, and no sense of gratitude. Ultimately, they were deeply unhappy.
Insight and change can take place in our darkest moments. After her first gown is ripped to shreds by her step-sisters and she realizes that she won’t be able to attend the royal ball, Cinderella runs outside and bursts into tears. Her hope, which had sustained her through so much, was shattered. In that moment, her Fairy Godmother appeared. Sometimes transformation can only occur when we finally let ourselves feel the hard feelings and accept that which we most want to reject. The trick is to be open to the possibilities in those dark moments; Cinderella could have been too terrified or suspicious of the crazy lady in the frumpy cape to accept her help, but she wasn’t, and magic happened.
Everyone is worthy of our kindness. When we are mistreated by those who have power over us, it can be tempting to take it out on those beneath us. Cinderella could have kicked the cat, set out mice traps, and slammed the doors on those noisy birds. But she didn’t. Cinderella treated her animal friends with kindness and respect, and she even struggled to find something good about Lucifer, the evil stepmother’s feline henchman. She didn’t expect anything in return, as true kindness isn’t a business transaction. It’s something we give because it is who we are or who we want to be. Kindness is the natural outcome of mindful awareness; when we are able to see, with acceptance, the connection between all things; it’s hard to not feel kindness and empathy for others.
The truth is that I’m still struggling to accept and integrate what I am learning from Cinderella into my daily life and my parenting. I often try to distract myself from painful feelings (both my own and my daughters’), I don’t always have the best attitude in difficult moments, and I’m certainly not as patient and kind as I’d like to be. At those times when I realize that I can do better, I try to take a few mindful breaths and make a better choice. Mindful parenting isn’t about being perfect, but it is about being present, and in that presence we can take a step towards becoming the parent we want to be.
What do you think? How do you feel about the Princesses? And what would you add to my list?