Wednesday, December 5th, 2007
Discussion: What is Beauty to a Toddler?
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?
You look nice.
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?
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.
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.