A few days after her third birthday my daughter, Ramona, turned her enormous blue lakes of eyeballs upon me and implored; “Am I beautiful, mummy? Are my eyes pretty? I don’t think my eyebrows are beautiful though.”
THERE’S a gut wrencher for two parents who try really hard to get across the value of the heart rather than the face. There are a million places she could have gotten such a question; the songs we listen to and sing, conversations overheard, even the quite carefully chosen stuff we watch and read. But, you know what, I think the way adults interact with her is a big part of it.
Barely a day passes where someone doesn’t comment on her outfit or hair or prettiness.
Please don’t greet my daughter by exulting her beauty. She IS beautiful, just as many rosy cheeked kiddos are, but she has enough indicators rushing at her all day about how wrongly important this is- it doesn’t need to be confirmed by friends, family and strangers.
I know how hard it is though- giving a compliment feels like a great instant rapport builder- I so often point out what a cool hoody my nephews are wearing as a way of engaging them. It’s especially hard not to exclaim about an outfit when the toddler has clearly dressed themselves and is wearing two frocks over pyjamas and a Santa Hat.
My advice is to go prepared. When you know you are visiting nephews/ grandchildren/ friends with kids deliberately avoid “Cool Jumper!” and “What pretty hair!” and have some other possibilities in your mind for rapport.
How was your journey here? I got the bus and there was loads of traffic!
How has your day been today?
What animals do you like? I love elephants the most.
Are you reading many books these days?
Who’s this dude? (Referring to the teddy/ action figure they may be holding.)
Mostly though, a simple Hello will do and more natural interactions can come a bit later, as you and this child get more comfortable with each other.
If you are wondering what possible harm a little “Aren’t you gorgeous!” can do – particularly when it is common for adults to compliment each other on their appearance – consider the TV programme Fat Talk. Cameras followed school kids around for a while as they did a simple experiment that involved avoiding ALL talk of body descriptions and compliments. The results were stark- the teenagers felt much, much better about themselves when it was all avoided- even compared to receiving really positive feedback on their image.
It’s not that the word “beautiful” needs to be yanked out of our vocabulary – not at all. I’m not sure there is a parent out there who hasn’t looked at their child and, with a heart bursting with love, spontaneously erupted with a proclamation of their beauty! But in this setting, where people have a close relationship with the child and all manner of things are spoken of, it exists as just one strand of a child’s intricately woven existence. Their physicalness sits next to their kindness, their rambunctiousness, their humour, their insightfulness- whatever other factors of that child’s personality there are, rather than being the primary strand always and constantly commented on.
So please, think twice about commenting on a child’s appearance.
I’ll do my part as a parent and will put The Little Mermaid audiobook in the bin. I will take seriously conversations with Ramona about marketing and advertising and we will don our open yet critiquing hats when it comes to stereotyped fairy tales and films.
Perhaps together we might be able to stave off body insecurity for a few more years at least.