Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: I loved your response last year (http://wapo.st/RGBR25) to the grandmother of a girl with boyish tastes. I have a concern on the other end of the girly spectrum. My almost-4-year-old is in love with pink, princesses, fairies, things that sparkle, accessories, nail polish, sassy shoes - all of it. I assumed she was just drawn to those things because she found them fun and aesthetically pleasing (I, too, love a good ruffle or sparkle), but now she's becoming preoccupied with "pretty." After I brush her hair, she asks, "Am I pretty now?" After she gets dressed, she asks, "Do I look pretty?"
My husband and I have tried to limit talk of pretty to things like flowers or butterflies, though we do slip and tell her she herself is pretty at times (because, come on - she's my gorgeous little girl). We try to emphasize things she can control, like trying so hard to learn her letters, hit a ball, etc., but only pretty seems to be registering with her at the moment.
I don't even know how to respond when she asks me if she's pretty. I end up saying something lame, like, "You're always pretty, sweetie. We just got the tangles out of your hair, you know?" But that response is too long and not resonating with her. Besides, I worry about telling her she's pretty, but she backs me into a corner by asking me point-blank! Help!
Answer: "How do you feel inside? That's what I ask myself."
Road-test that and check back in. Especially at her age, there's a 99.99 percent chance it's a phase, but why not use the phase to guide her to find beauty a different way? Or ways.
Reader comment: I think one of the best things about kids is that they obsess, except that I view it as an intense interest and childlike commitment. There's a line in a Paul Rudd movie (Knocked Up): "I wish I loved anything as much as my kids love bubbles." It's pretty cool, really. And they can change on a dime. One minute it's princesses, the next it's microscopes.
By encouraging their interests, we teach them that it's fun to go all in, and it will be fine when they go all in on their next interest. I remember taking my then-5-year-old daughter to campus on a take-your-daughter-to-work day. When asked, "What do you like best about yourself?" she said, "My long blond hair." When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said, "The president."
Let kids like what they like. They don't get boxed in as much as adults think they do or as much as adults box themselves in.
Answer: Helpful perspective, thanks.
Reader comment: My response to that question tended to be, "You're my daughter. You'll always be gorgeous to me." She's grown now, and she still loves that answer.
Answer: I love it, too.
I think it especially works in the context of all the things a loving, non-looks-obsessed parent would say: Sometimes it's, yes, you look beautiful in that dress; sometimes it's praise for effort; sometimes it's just talk of art and music and frogs.
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