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Editor's Note: Mrs. Potato Head's career ambitions

Published: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

In a study that was really too small to be called a study, researchers may have found one of the keys to raising girls with wide-ranging career ambitions – and her name is Mrs. Potato Head.

The experiment was conducted in a psychology lab at Oregon State University, where a group of 37 girls ages 4 to 7 were given a variety of toys to play with. After letting the girls play for a few minutes, researchers asked them about what careers they wanted to do or thought they would be good at.

After playing with Barbies, the girls, on average, said they were capable of 1.5 fewer occupations than a boy. That held true regardless of whether the Barbie was purely a fashion doll or was dressed in one of her myriad career uniforms, like doctor or astronaut.

But after just five minutes with Mrs. Potato Head, girls said they could grow up to do pretty much anything they wanted to do.

My first reaction on reading about this experiment was to laugh and make a noise that sounded kind of like “hubba-wha?”

I shared this tidbit with my sister-in-law, who works with toddlers in a day care center. As we laughed about it, she put her arm up in the air, elbow by her ear, and said, “Oh, yes, I can grow up to have an arm sprouting out the side of my head!”

She was thinking of a child at the day care who likes to put arms in every hole on the Mr. Potato Head body. We laughed harder, but something in the back of my brain clicked. Maybe that’s it.

Barbie may say she can be whatever she wants, with a sparkly costume change, but children can actually make Mrs. Potato Head – and her spud hubby – whatever they want them to be. With a “bucket of parts,” the Potato Heads can look businesslike or clown-like. They can have two eyes or six, a goofy grin or a lipsticked pout – all in a matter of minutes. The nature of the character is completely in the hands of the child playing with it.

I can see how, from a childlike perspective, that confidence could carry over into the pliability of their own futures. For children to believe they can be whatever they want, maybe they need to spend time playing with things they have that level of control over, whether it’s Potato Head or Play-Doh.

I’d like to see this experiment repeated on a much larger sample, a group large enough to actually draw usable data from, and I hope to read more about researchers’ analysis of their findings.

It could mean a sales bump for Playskool’s Potato Heads, but I don’t think Mattel needs to worry about Barbie any time soon. The most recent numbers I could find estimate that worldwide sales of the fashion dolls are roughly one every two seconds. Nor do I think playing with a doll will damage a child receiving positive messages from elsewhere in her environment. If most of the messages and cues a girl receives tell her the sky is her limit, I’m pretty sure that’s what she’ll believe. The most Barbie-like woman I know – beautiful, stylish and a bit obsessed with fashion – works as a prison guard and loves it.

So be what you want to be, and enjoy your MidWeek.

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