Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Abiding Power of Pippi

Astrid Lindgren was on to something. Lindgren was the Swedish author who created Pippi Longstocking--a book translated into more than 50 languages. It’s no wonder that children—especially girls—are so drawn to its protagonist.

Pippi is always irreverent, and straightforwardly rude to the pompous adults who seem to populate so many children’s lives. If you and your daughter have never read Pippi Longstocking, put down this issue, go to the library, and borrow it. If you have read it, you know that Pippi is the gleeful 9-year-old orphaned daughter of a sea captain.
Backed up by the captain’s treasure chest of gold coins, she lives alone in Villa Villekulla, with only a horse and monkey for company. Pippi has moved in next door to two average, well-behaved children named Tommy and Annika, who quickly fall into Pippi’s orbit.

Tommy and Annika represent the book’s readers as they learn how fun, constructive, and reasonable it is for a girl to run her own life, ignoring the judgments other people cast on her behavior or her bright red stick-out ponytails. These are the elements that made Pippi Longstocking an international sensation.

In its obituary for Lindgren, the New York Times quoted a 1985 interview in which the author discussed Pippi’s impact:
“Bertrand Russell has written that a child dreams about power as grown-ups dream sexual wish dreams. This is a child who has power. That is wonderful, for children to think, ‘Oh, if I were like Pippi! I could say to Father, ‘You don’t do that!’ She has power, but she never misuses that power, which I think is the most splendid thing, and the most difficult.”

Lindgren’s words, and her archetypal Pippi, confirm one of the most important realities about our daughters, and one of the key challenges we face as their parents: Our daughters have power—real power, not the faux “Girl Power” merchandised to sell them Power- Puff Girls lunch boxes. They have the power to say no or yes—power it can be delightful to use, as Pippi demonstrates.

How does she do it? Pippi gives free reign to her power because she’s unfettered by adults’ interference. Of course, Pippi Longstocking is a fairy tale, and real girls have adults overseeing their lives. And that’s where a big parental challenge lies, because our supervision can so easily become stifling.

We have to walk a fine line between overprotecting them and providing our daughters the opportunity (and freedom) to exercise their power. And I mean exercise in the literal sense—try it out, see how it works, test its limits, strengthen its positive effect. That’s counterintuitive for parents.

Usually, when we think about “empowering” girls, we think of giving them the power to say no to threats and violations of their bodies. What’s different about Pippi is that she seizes her innate power and uses it to say yes to honesty, creativity, and the excitement of being alive.

It’s unsettling to consider allowing our daughters to exercise their power. They might, like Pippi, do something we consider outrageous, such as inviting a horse to dinner. But our daughters need their power to be fully alive. It’s like a muscle; it needs exercise, practice, and honing to work its best.

Perhaps our goal might be to say of our own daughters what Astrid Lindgren once said of Pippi: They have power, and they use it wisely.


Anonymous said...

My generation has suffered greatly because we did not have good relationships with our fathers. You are doing amazing work for all the women being brought up today, and I'd like to thank you for that. Fathers play such an important roll in creating for girls their futures with men. Fathers set the stage for how a girl will expect to be treated, loved, and respected. They set the relationship barometer.

Abby Dad said...

My wife is the middle child sandwiched between an older sister and younger brother and has grown to be a vibrant, exceptional woman who just tackled breast cancer and survived.

I am confident that the way she was raised gave her the skills to feel empowered enough to meet and beat this challenge and I can't wait to start seeing these traits flourish in our little girl who is turning one year old tomorrow.

My wife has been an avid reader throughout her life and we will be sure to add Pippy Longstocking to the mix of books on our daughter's shelf to reinforce the beauty of being a strong-willed woman.

Smirking Cat said...

I loved Pippi Longstocking as a child! I couldn't get into the silly princess fluff being pushed at me, and Pippi was so fun and strong.