10 Life Lessons I learned from my American Girl Dolls

Love em or hate em, American Girl dolls are a huge part of the childhood of many females in the United States and around the world. My sisters and I played with them for six years, from the time I was seven to the time I was fourteen.

In recent years the American Girl company has come under fire for their ridiculous prices. Are they really trying to help girls “follow their inner star” or are they just another greedy monopoly exploiting young girl’s dreams.

I’ve heard many debates on the internet sounding off on the AG craze. Should I buy my girl the hundred dollar doll that she is begging for? Or is spending so much money on a six year old’s toys just irresponsible? Is giving in to your daughter’s pleas the ultimate sign of love? Or is it sending the wrong message and wasting money just to help her fit in with classmates? I can’t say I know the answers. All I know is what I learned from my personal experience with doll play.

You tell me if you think my sisters and I got our money’s worth. 

Without further ado,

1. Life is unfair.

It took me three years of saving, dreaming, and drooling over mail catalogs before I had enough to buy my own American Girl doll. My parents encouraged our doll play, but they never financed it. In the six years I spent playing with dolls, they did not buy us as much as one single hair clip. So imagine my frustration when I went to a friend’s house and found out that her parents had bought her a doll plus hundreds of dollars worth of accessories just because she asked for them!

It didn’t seem fair. That is until I started bringing my dolls to another friend’s house. This friend didn’t have an allowance. She wouldn’t be able to buy a doll even if she did save up for three years. Suddenly, I felt ashamed of my privilege. I tried to hide my doll whenever she came over.

Eventually I realized that the best way to have fun with both of my friends was to simply keep on playing. Our economic differences didn’t matter at all when we were busy having fun.

Life is unfair, but when you can’t do anything about it, just keep moving forward without comparing your luck to others. 

2. You can’t buy happiness.

Remember the little friend of mine who had everything she wanted?  Her parents bought her another American Girl doll for Christmas!

However, the more we played together, the less jealous I became. She didn’t know how to play. No matter how many accessories and outfits and dolls her parents bought for her, she grew bored of them quickly and never had much fun in the mean time.

Thus came my B.F.O.(blinding flash of the obvious): perhaps we had MORE fun with our dolls  BECAUSE we had to work hard. The fun of doll play didn’t depend on how much stuff we had. It depended on how dedicated we were in arranging our games and how creative we were with our homemade outfits, crafts, and stories.

We spent hours and hours arranging, crafting, and preparing for doll feasts, festivals, and other games.

Happiness comes from spending time with people you love. All the money in the world (even the new American Girl doll convertible!) will not make life better. 

3. Hard work pays off.

About seventy-five percent of our “doll play” wasn’t play at all. It was hard work. We baked miniature goods, cut boxes into accessories, sewed makeshift outfits, cleaned our yard, etc… Later on we learned how to restore old dolls and re-wig them.

Every few years we opened a makeshift spa to restore our doll’s hair and bodies.

Every bit of hard work came with a visible reward. The more I worked the more I realized that our preparation was setting our doll play apart from the richy girls who waited for Christmas to get what they wanted.

Work is not a horrible thing. In fact, life without work would be boring and meaningless. 

4. Imagination is a powerful force. 

Our dolls became real to us. The had their own houses, ran businesses, and each had a distinct personality that did not change rapidly, but rather developed over time through the events that we played out whenever we came together.

We cleaned out an abandoned shed in our backyard, turned old bookshelves into an apartment building and cardboard boxes into stores, restaurants, and additional housing. We developed a town called Pleasant Grove with a government complete with working currency, elections, and an occasional revolution.

Even when we weren’t playing with dolls, our creative juices were running. If we went to a grocery store or yard sale, we looked for broken jewelry boxes, mini foods, and all sorts of other cheap items that could be refashioned into doll supplies.

I believe that the creativity I exercised through doll play helped develop my creative writing and problem solving skills tremendously.

Throughout the years we worked on controlling our dolls hands and bodies more realistically.

Your imagination is always with you, not only to help you escape from the problems of this world, but also to help you find solutions for those problems. 

5. Words are even more powerful.

My doll characters were my first stages for testing different rhetorical devices.

Nicki, my American Girl Of The Year, was famous around town as a fighter and revolutionary. As Nicki I could test speeches and rhetorical techniques that I would have been too shy to try for myself. And you know what? To my surprise and delight, her speeches worked! Nicki was able to start an entire revolution one day through nothing more than powerful emotive language.

Another one of Nicki’s protests.

My other favorite character was Charlotte, a cheap off brand doll from Michael’s. She was my testing ground for bad jokes.

I see bits of Nicki and Charlotte in my humor, rhetorical style, and writing voice today. I am glad I had a way to separate myself from their identities and thus be free to try out all sorts of voices. I believe that switching personalities with so many different dolls helped me to become a fiction writer and creator of characters.

Words our the way we communicate between human beings. Harness them and you can connect with people in a powerful way. 

6. Supply and demand.

As we began our businesses, our dolls needed money. So I tore up a couple pages of green construction paper and handed each doll family a few bills. In those days you could buy anything you wanted for a buck or two, from a family meal at Rachel’s Chinese Cafe to a brand new computer at Nicki’s Stationary and More store.

Eventually my younger sister created a template for more sophisticated currency. As we added money to the town, prices began to rise. Soon, buying a computer for a dollar was unheard of. You would have to save up at least three days worth of work to afford such a treasure.

We watched as our simple economy grew and fluctuated. Prices lowered as the money supply dwindled (due to Nicki’s ingenious schemes to earn all the money in town and her terrible habit of hoarding everything). Then suddenly (usually when Nicki had a binge visit to Ruthie’s Candy Shoppe), prices rose again.

When I started studying economics in high school, I would often chuckle to myself. There were so many basic economic principles that were had inadvertently discovered in our miniature town.

7. We all need role models. 

Not only did we play with the dolls, we read the books that came with them. They were historical tales of girls who fought prejudice and injustice. There was Addy, a girl with the courage to escape slavery on the underground railroad. And there was Felicity who had the guts to do what she knew was right, despite it being dangerous and illegal. Don’t forget Samantha, who kept her head up and her heart focused on others despite the loads of personal tragedy that she faced.

The American Girls were strong characters and role models. The best part? They were just like me. They had to deal with the same late elementary angst that I did, from annoying siblings to unwanted homework.

Reading their books and then watching them come alive in our town inspired me. We can learn from history. We can learn from the people who had courage long ago. I’d go so far as to say that playing with American Girl dolls may have influenced my decision to study history in college.

 Look to the past to find the courage and strength to live a life of purpose in a fastly changing world. 

8. It is okay to be different. 

As I moved into my early teens, all my friends seemed to have grown out of doll play. They thought that dolls were for babies. It was hard sometimes. I was ashamed of our obsession with dolls. Still, I was proud of what we had created. I was proud of the lessons we had learned. Playing with dolls was fantastic. Even if my fourteen year old friends were too busy finding their first boyfriend to care anymore, I loved dolls and wasn’t going to give them up just to fit in. It was okay to be different when something as cool as a doll world was involved.

As we grew into our mid teens, my sisters and developed a passion for helping youngsters improve their doll play. We showed them how to control the plastic arms and bodies in a more realistic way and even taught a few how to make their dolls dance waltzes and jigs. Seeing the joy in their little faces confirmed what I already kind of knew. It didn’t matter if my friends thought I was weird, playing with dolls was a lovely activity.

When you are doing something you love and are passionate about, it really doesn’t matter a smidge what other people are saying.

9. I need help (even if it means help from people who are a complete pain in the neck).

I am an extremely independent person. The best activities are ones I can perform alone. However, when I tried to play dolls by myself, it never worked out. I was incapable of acting out my little sister’s doll’s personalities properly. Also, without outside characters helping to influence events, there was no room for surprises.

My sisters and I were completely different in every way. We annoyed and misunderstood each other often. However, we all knew that without all three of us, the doll world wouldn’t work. The conflict between our doll’s personalities (which somehow closely resembled the conflict in our own personalities) was what made our game interesting.

You cannot do anything of consequence alone. 

10. You don’t have to say goodbye to good things.

My little brother wasn’t quite as excited about our doll world.

When my youngest sister became a teenager, we realized that we weren’t using our doll world anymore. I was busy volunteering at a historical society. Mariah was focused on learning to play the classical guitar. And Zoe had found a new hobby in painting.

We decided to create a doll themed event in our backyard as our final goodbye. Little girls came from all over our area (one family traveled from a neighboring state) to share our love for dolls. We made crafts and played games, auctioned off a few of our dolls, sold our best outfits and furniture, and gave out resources and tips for how to improve doll play. Thus were the lessons we learned handed down to another generation. We moved on.

And yet, I often find myself in a gas station or dollar store picking up food shaped erasers or cheap tiny purses.

“This would be perfect for Ruthie’s candy shoppe” I think to myself. If one of my sisters is around I might whisper,”This purse is the right size! Don’t you think Elizabeth would love it?”

Once in a while I even wish we still had the shed and could run away from our adolescent woes back to the simple world of Pleasant Grove.

Recently I opened a “time capsule” from Pleasant Grove that I found under my bed. As I sorted through the doll sized magazine my sister meticulously put together and chuckled at the artifacts, each so full of meaning, I realized that our doll play will continue to connect me and my sisters and affect our world view for the rest of our life. 

Good things don’t end. They become memories that we take with us. 

And there you have it, my experience with American Girl dolls. American Girl may be overpriced and greedy, but they created a product that can empower girls and teach them many lessons.* I still don’t know what I think about the company, but I do know one thing:

If I ever have daughters, you can be sure that I’ll encourage them to play with dolls and you can also be sure that I won’t be financing them.

*Technically most of the dolls we used were not from American Girl. However, without the company, 18″ dolls and accessories wouldn’t exist. And without their catalogs that we dreamed on, we wouldn’t have had the inspiration we needed to create our own accessories and sets. 

Author: Susanna

I'm Susanna, a 20-year-old Christian girl incorrigibly addicted spontaneous adventures. My first dream was to become a pioneer. Unfortunately, I was born a couple centuries late, so I've decided to read, cook, run, and travel the world until my time machine is finished. You'll mostly likely find me getting into trouble and/or eating licorice. I am currently blogging the misadventures of a middle-school teacher in training. Come join me on my quest to become the next Ms. Frizzle!

6 thoughts on “10 Life Lessons I learned from my American Girl Dolls”

  1. When I was eight years old, my first American Girl catalog came in, and they constantly were sent every year. I'm a teen now, and never got one. Even though I never received one of my own, I have played with them and read the books of the historical AG dolls. Like you, I will definitely encourage my children to play and read American Girl– it has made such an impact on my life and I hope that it may do the same for them.

    xoxo Morning


  2. This is all so relateable! When I was nine (I think) my grandma gave my sisters and I American Girl Dolls. We made them clothes, and designed houses for them, and I'm glad that our mom didn't just buy us the fancy clothes we dreamed of, either. It was a lot more fun making everything, and I think it really helped all of our imaginative and creative skills. (-:
    It was so fun reading about how you played with your dolls and what you learned.


  3. I am glad you could relate. I agree, the preparation and creativity that went into it was really the most fun part. I also believe that we benefited a lot from not having toys and accessories thrown at us for free : )


  4. Agreed! I am so impressed that even without a doll, American Girl influenced you. You must have had a lot of creativity and maturity in doll play!

    I hope that the company continues what they are doing and don't change too much (I noticed that they are straying away from Historical Characters to Just Like You dolls which I think is a bit of a tragedy), because I want my daughters to enjoy the same lessons and fun.


  5. This post is so sweet. It brought back lots of memories for me!

    My parents bought me my doll when I was around 8 years old. I still remember how happy I was when I got her. I'm pretty sure at first I just held her and cried. (Crazy how much those dolls meant to us!) Sometimes I got an AG outfit for Christmas, and each little dress or pajama set was like gold dust to me. Like you said, I think one of the best parts of playing with my dolls was using my imagination when it came to doll beds, food, tables, etc. I loved my doll so much…if I have a daughter someday, it's going to make me so happy to give her my doll and her beautiful clothes.

    I loved reading your post and hearing about your AG experience!


  6. It is so neat to hear other people's stories about how they enjoyed AG dolls. Everyone has a different experience and so many I have talked to have such fond memories. It sounds like you and your sisters really did it right. If we had known each other ten years ago, I bet we'd have had a ball : )


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