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Child Caring

What does it mean when a 3-year-old says she's pretty?

Hi Barbara,
I was wondering what is developmentally "normal" for a three year old girl in terms of wanting to watch her own reflection.

We don't have any mirrors that she can see in on her own, but lately she seems preoccupied with watching herself in the refrigerator (black and shiny), the glass on the front of a cabinet, and even the shiny knobs on our kitchen cabinets. She usually likes to watch herself jump and dance, and I love to see her active and exuberant, and can see why she'd want to admire her new skills. But I also worry she might be too concerned with her appearance. She said the other day, "I'm a pretty girl". My husband and I avoid stuff like this, but often people will say things like that in stores and I think she may hear it at daycare as well. Also, what is an appropriate response when she echoes compliments like that? I think I said something like, "yes, but it's more important to act nice."
Thanks for any insight!

From: CCM, Melrose, MA

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Dear CCM,

Yes, it's pretty typical for young children, including babies, to be enchanted by their own reflections so that, in itself, is not worrisome. But I absolutely understand that you might not be comfortable with the "I'm pretty" comments. You're in a little bit of a tricky place. On the one hand, you don't want to be the parent who gets dumped on years from now for never telling her child how beautiful she was. On the other hand, you obviously don't want to encourage the "looks are everything" mentality that pervades our culture.

Consider that when your daughter mimics what she hears about herself -- and keep in mind that you can steer friends and relatives away from such comments but you certainly can't stop other folks from noticing her beauty -- she's trying to make sense of what it means, much the same way young children try to understand what it means to be a "big" boy or a girl. If you allow her to get her answers from the world at large, she will quickly equate pretty with sexy because, let's face it, that message is all over our culture, not just in the adult culture that surrounds her but also (sadly) in the entertainment culture created specifically for young children. Of course, she's way too young to make sense of what any of this means. Left to her own devices, she'll mimic what she sees. (Click here for a video clip from the "Today" show about "So Sexy So Soon," by authors Jeane Kilbourne and Diane Levin.)

Instead, here's my suggestion:

Next time she talks about being pretty, try to get inside her head to see what it means to her. Ask her, "What do think it means to be pretty?" "How are you pretty?" Maybe she'll actually have something specific in mind, like her hair, or clothes. Maybe she'll wiggle. Instead of saying, "Yes, but what's important is to act nice." ("Nice" is a marshmallow word, fluffy, not concrete), validate her: "Yes, you are pretty!" Then take it a step further by tying "pretty" to an intrinsic quality or ability. She wiggled when she said it, or tossed her hair around? "I love to watch you dance!" You want to focus her on manners and kindness? "I love it when you are kind to your playmates." In other words: Your behaviors make you pretty. Pretty comes from within.

You don't have to hit her over the head with the concept, just make the connection for her. And if you validate her first, she'll be more able to hear it.

Oh -- and if you're concerned about the influence of cultural messages? Limit her screen time and watch with her so you can put your spin on the messages. For instance, you see a sexily-dressed bombshell? Ask her, "Do you think real mommies dress like that?" And point to yourself and laugh, "Of course not!" That will not only help to negate the message but also set the stage for media literacy.