Discussion: What is Beauty to a Toddler?

Photo of a little girl sitting at a vanity table playing with what looks like makeup.

We were looking through a Constructive Playthings catalog yesterday with our 3-year-old daughter when she spontaneously commented on a Classic Wood Vanity table and mirror.

“That’s to make you pretty, but I don’t need it because I am already pretty.”

Several thoughts shot through my head.

Wow! Good for you!

Did she say that because strangers give us the typical, “Oh, you’re daughter is so beautiful!” compliments?

Did she say that because of our conditioning? Her mother rarely wears make-up. Where we live, when I see someone wearing enough make-up that I’m consciously aware of it, I think, “teen” or “tourist.”

So, we quizzed our daughter the next evening over dinner. I recorded the conversation to transcribe; I’ll save you from listening to the file, which is replete with chewing noises.

My first question was to ask what she thought she looked like, but the question confused her. So I had her pretend I was her Auntie M who is visually impaired and hasn’t “seen” her in a while. In my best squeaky Monty Python-style man-pretending-to-be-a-woman voice, I asked:

How would you describe yourself?

I’m tall and I have brown hair and brown skin and I also had an owwie on my knee and I was skipping on the edge of the sidewalk and I fell.

Are you pretty?


What’s pretty?

You look nice.

What’s ugly?


Do you know anyone who is ugly?


Do you know anyone who is pretty?


Why do you think you are pretty?

Well, people say that.

Do you think Papa is pretty?

Not really.

Is Mama pretty?

Yes, she just looks pretty.

Why am I not pretty?

You just have short hair and ugly arms because they’re pink [meaning my elbows are especially reddish-pink].

Mama asked: Why are Mama and Papa different? Why am I pretty?

When you are dressing, you just pick stuff that is pretty.

Mama asked: Papa doesn’t wear pretty clothes?

(head shakes no, smiling)

Do you remember looking at that thing in the catalog with that girl sitting and looking in the mirror? What do you think she does there?

She gets herself pretty.

How does she do that?

She probably puts stuff on herself.

Like what?

Like paint.

Mama asked: have you seen other people do that honey?


What do you think she does there at the mirror?

I think she paints her face to make her pretty.

What does she look like after she paints her face?

Maybe a kitty or a dog.

So, my daughter doesn’t have a clear conceptual understanding of beauty, and easily entertains contradictory viewpoints. I suppose toddlers are attracted to clothes, make-up and such purely by role modeling what they see their parents do.

She thinks herself beautiful because other people tell her she is, and she is unconcerned about make-up because her mother doesn’t wear it.

All of this begs the question, if people told her she was ugly, would it affect her self-esteem at this age? She seems to have no sense of beauty beyond what other people report, but knows beauty is good and ugly is not so good (but hey, she still loves her ol’ pink-elblow’d father).

What does being pretty give a person? Self-esteem. Oh, sure, it’s not guaranteed to give you a sense of self worth, but it provides a big boost in that direction.

So, how do you begin inoculating a toddler against superficial issues, to build a strong self-image that is independent of how others treat you? I suppose you do it through hugs, kisses, attention and continued support. You make your child feel valued at home. That you, for example, play that game or read that book instead of popping in that video because you’re too busy. You must be important because your parents make time for you.

Harry Chapin wasn’t speaking of self-esteem when he wrote (actually his wife mostly wrote) Cats in the Cradle, but it somehow seems appropriate.

My daughter announced yesterday she
became an adult the day before and will be moving out this morning to live in
her own house and “go to university” to become a nurse for pregnant
ladies. Oh, and she’s pregnant. Again. We’ve birthed stuffed animals at least 100 times from her belly. I’ve stopped asking who the father is.


5 Responses to “Discussion: What is Beauty to a Toddler?”

  1. Christy says:

    What an interesting conversation. My daughter is 2 and we are working on the concept of “pretty.” Right now, she has no idea, but we want to make sure that she understands what true beauty is. It is really hard with all the images in the media. I’m not sure how we are going to handle it when she gets older and starts seeing all of these ad campaigns and other misguided views of beauty.

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    December 5th, 2007 at 8:18 am

  2. AJ says:

    Now that I think about it more, parents don’t (or I don’t) usually talk about other people being pretty or beautiful.

    I was surprised this article didn’t elicit a greater response this morning, but not now…

    The only people regularly talking about beauty are marketers. I’d better think about having these conversations before Bratz dolls do.

    December 5th, 2007 at 10:09 am

  3. Erin says:

    My two year old came up to me a couple of weeks ago and said, “You’re so pretty, Mommy, and I’m proud of you!” Last time she went to see her grandpa she walked into the house and announced, “I’m cute!” To me, that means we must be doing something right, since kids tend to repeat the things they hear said. As she gets older, we may have to work on humility a little bit :-)

    December 5th, 2007 at 10:42 am

  4. KGS says:

    What interests me about this conversation is that despite lack of exposure to TV and such, your toddler already thinks women (and their clothes, etc) are “pretty,” but that adjective seems out of place (or at least makes her smile) when applied to men and their accessories. I doubt she would verbally identify the cultural baggage that “pretty” carries, but she knows it’s there. Kids pick up on subtle aspects of popular culture so easily.

    I think it’s relatively easy to think of yourself as “pretty” as a child, and very hard during your teen years (no matter what you look like), so enjoy this time while it lasts! But “pretty” only builds self-esteem if you think it’s one of several good qualities you have; it detracts from self-esteem if you feel it’s the only tool you have to win people’s affection. Spending time with our kids and talking about all the good things they do seems like one obvious way to combat this, and it sounds like that’s your approach too.

    December 5th, 2007 at 12:55 pm

  5. Jessica G. says:

    Ok, I had to try that out since we have girls the same age. This is how my version went:

    Me: What do you look like?
    Miss P: I look like me.
    Me: What does that mean?
    Miss P: I am a lion.
    Me: Are you yellow?
    Miss P: I have red hair and blue and white eyes and a tiki face.
    Me: Are you pretty?
    Miss P: Yes.
    Me: Who else is pretty?
    Miss P: Paige and Grandma and Daddy and YOU!
    Me: Do you know anyone who is ugly?
    MIss P: Yes. Pa-Pa.
    Me: (laughing) Why is Pa-Pa ugly?
    Miss P: Because he bumped his eye
    Editors note: Her grandfather did indeed bump his eye – had a horrible black eye for Thanksgiving!
    Me: Do little girls need makeup?
    Miss P: Nope!
    Me: Do mommies need makeup?
    Miss P: Yes.
    Me: Why do people need makeup?
    Miss P: Because they go to the store and …
    Me: Does daddy need makeup?
    Miss P: NO! But daddy wears lipstick.

    Ok. You get the gist. Daddy does wear chapstick, but who wants to ruin that train of thought?

    December 5th, 2007 at 3:30 pm

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