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“Playing House” As Kids: What Kids Learn Through Play

When I was a kid, we would "play house." That meant we would pretend to be a happily married, middle class couple, living in the suburbs, where the women raised the children, cleaned house and made food, and the men left home every weekday morning for work, and returned at 6 pm, exhausted, to be served food by the woman...
"Playing House" As Kids: What Kids Learn Through Play
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

When I was a kid, we would "play house." That meant, basically, we would pretend to be a happily married, middle class couple, living in the suburbs, where the women raised the children, cleaned house and made food, and the men left home every weekday morning for work, and returned at 6 pm, exhausted, to be served food and given a back rub by the woman. My first memories of playing house suck, because I was the only girl with short hair on the block, and primarily the girls played house, so we needed girls to play boys. I was told I had to play the dad due to my short hair, by the older girls. So when we would start to play house, they would tell me I had to say, "Goodbye honey," playing the dad, then leave up the street for a while. I would go up the street, sit on the curb for what seemed like hours, then would go back to the group playing house, and say, "Hi, honey, I'm home!" and they would say, "No, no, not yet, go back to work." So I would go back and wait a bit more. After a while, I remember going back to my own home, crying, and deciding I did not like playing house being the dad.

I never really understood playing house. Yes, I had an easy bake oven, and a play iron and ironing board, I had tea sets, and cute little aprons as a girl. But my mom hated housework and cooking. She said it was unpaid slavery and said she wanted to work outside the house because that job ended at 5 pm, unlike being a housewife and mother which went on 24/7 without break. Certainly I was not taught to want to emulate being a housewife or mother. I was taught being a housewife and mother sucked. I had dolls, but my mom thought dolls that you feed with water in a bottle, then they peed the water into the diaper were *too* realistic. She did not understand why someone would want to pretend to do all the things she hated doing. These were conflicting times. On one hand, all the kids were seeing Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best on TV in reruns. We thought that the norm was those homes. Even in the Brady Bunch, we see the same idyllic home situation portrayed on TV. Not really until Roseanne, did someone show a sitcom with a messy house, genuinely complex and realistic situations, and a mom who bitched about housework like mine did. When we played house, we played Leave It To Beaver's house, not our own houses, really. I certainly was not playing the speed-addicted suicidal mommy, like what I lived with, when I played house! Perhaps that was where the fantasy was in playing house.

I found playing with dolls to be very limited. You can dress them in cute clothes, but then what? You can put them in a stroller and stroll them around the block, maybe feed them, but dolls just seemed very limited for play. I used to like to play school, more than house. When I was a little kid, from about 3-6 years old, I really liked to play school. I would set up all the chairs I could find in rows, put my stuffed animals and dolls in the chairs, then take out a chalk board, chalk, and eraser, and write things on the board, "teaching," in the front of the classroom. I taught the class things like how to spell and what vowels were, as well as how to count in different languages. My mom had negative vibes when I played house. She did not have negative vibes when I played school. And I can understand that. She wanted me to learn how to be smart, and to be a teacher, not a housewife, as she had been and hated.

Barbie was another one of those weird mixed messages. I could tell my mom did not like Barbie, she did not buy me Barbie dolls. People gave them to me as presents and I played with them. I am not sure why my mom hated Barbie, but it seemed like she thought Barbie was anorexic, and some stupid male fantasy for men. She also seemed to think Barbie was too much about fashion and shallow appearances. I think she also hated Barbie's career choices. When I was a kid, they did not have a million careers and accessories for Barbie like they do now, so we spent considerable time making her things, like houses with pools, cars, beds, etc. My grandma knit me sweaters for my Ken doll, and dresses for my Barbie. I had a Ken doll that talked. When you pulled his string, the only thing I can remember him saying was, "Want to go out on a date tonight?" A friend of mine was babysitting at a house, and the cat came in, meowing, acting like it was hungry. She looked around, found a bowl on the floor, filled it with food and fed the cat. In came the kid she was watching, who said, "Hey! Who put cat food in Barbie's hot tub?!" Yeah, the only difference between a cat food bowl and a Barbie hot tub is probably $20. Barbie has become a massive marketing scheme, and I understand my mom's hesitations toward supporting Barbie as a good thing. I did not really get what you were supposed to do with Barbies either. Just like dolls, you dress them up, then what? It seemed like unless you liked making clothing for Barbie, or dressing her over and over again, she was useless.

It is funny that many of the things my mother did as a girl when she played, she did not encourage me to do when I grew up. I was encouraged more to be artistic or musical and independent by my mom, and to be smart and athletic by my dad, than I was ever taught to be a "homemaker," "housewife," or even wife or mother. I remember my mom having mixed feelings about Girl Scouts. On one hand, she had fond memories of her days as a Girl Scout and her years working at Girl Scout camp as a counselor, but she also could see the sexism in what the girls were being taught. I could tell she was not that enthused about the cooking and sewing badges, for instance. She was much more enthusiastic about the drama and arts and crafts badges.

When my son was about 7 years old, he was in the Boy Scouts. I was absolutely stunned at the things young boys were learning that I, as a grown woman, had never been exposed to. For instance, they did a project with electrical connections. Why didn't they teach us that in Girl Scouts? They did all kinds of projects with mechanics, electrical connections, carpentry, etc., things that would certainly benefit a girl as much as a boy. But the gender separations in things such as the curriculum in Boy and Girl Scouts shows how far we still have to go. What we encourage our children to "play" does affect how they live. Much of "play" is learning skills. It would behoove parents to use curriculum from Boy Scouts in Girl Scouts and Girl Scouts in Boy Scouts, for instance. I do not know if kids still "play house." I do not know if they now play the Roseanne or Leave It To Beaver versions. But it is interesting that when I was a kid, the boys played military games and Cowboys and Indians, while the girls played house and with dolls. Was there motive to what we were taught to play? Whose motive was it? Were our parents even aware of this brainwashing through play choices? Play is really important work for kids. Watching what kids play can tell you a lot about a society.

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