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Child Caring

Preschooler's Interest in Her Image Is Not Unusual

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,

This is normal, healthy development. It's in the preschool years that children begin to form a sense of themselves as separate individuals who have distinct characteristics. They often take pride in noticing, identifying and categorizing these characteristics: Ellen's favorite color is green; mine is purple. Mary has yellow hair; mine is brown.

Girls tend to do this around personal traits while boys tend to do it around physical ability. I have a distinct memory of my son at this age going through his preschool class telling me which boy was the fastest runner, the best jumper, the best kicker. My immediate thought was oh no, he's making a judgement about himself and thinking he is less-than. Uh uh. "I'm the best thrower," he told me. He was simply categorizing. Then I thought, "Oh no, he was bragging." It was none of the above. He was categorizing.

When young children do this on their own, they are not typically passing judgment, they are noticing differences. The noticing is developmental, it happens all by itself. The judgement is learned, from us, from peers, from the popular culture.

My suggestion is to get a mirror she can look in. Stand together in front of it and feed into this cognitive ability of hers: "Let's see. I have blue eyes and you have blue eyes. What else do we have the same? How are we different?" Dance in front of the mirror together. Take away the tabu of looking at yourself. There's no judgement here. Just facts. If she says, "I'm pretty!" why is that bad? Shouldn't every girl think she's pretty? Every parent should think her child is beautiful! Have you told her that you think she is? You aren't inflating her ego or teaching her to care about appearance, you are simply telling her that in your eyes, she is beautiful. Give her a big kiss and a hug: "Yes, you are pretty!"

It sounds like your daughter is someone whose appearance is noticed and acknowledged by strangers, so, yes, I get that you want her focus to be on what's inside her, not on her appearance. But not in a way that makes her feel bad about being pretty. I'm not saying you are doing that......yet. Forget the "yes, you're pretty but....". Try instead to:

Find appropriate times to praise qualities you want to reinforce: "I saw how you shared your cookie. That was such a kind thing to do!"

Talk about what you value as a family: "In our family, we think sharing is a really good thing."

Use specific, concrete words that carry meaning to her: Kind. Thoughtful. Caring. Cooperative. "Nice" has no meaning to a child.

set a role model and identify how those behaviors make you feel. "I'm so glad we took the time to help that elderly woman cross the street. It made me feel good inside to help her."

Screen and pay attention to the pop culture she absorbs.