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Mom to Mom: My Preschooler's Self Image

Posted by Becca on 6/10/2013 to Mom Madness

It all started with Disney princesses. Sometime over a year ago, Bunny fell in love with those princesses. My husband and I certainly had nothing to do with it, but my sisters started giving her tons of princessy things and Bunny just loved them. Dave and I were fine with that. It's what she liked, so we indulged her. We bought her princess dolls and watched the princess movies with her and picked up princess T shirts and pajamas at yard sales. Soon, she'd start picking her church dresses based on the princess she wanted to be. If her dress was purple, she was Rapunzel. If she wore blue, she was Cinderella and needed her hair in a bun. If she wore yellow, she was Belle, and wore her hair half up, half down. And so it went. Last summer, when school let out and I had more time to pour into all my her whims and fancies, I started making her dresses for all the princesses. By summer's end, I'd made a dress for Cinderella, Rapunzel, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Snow White. She loved those dresses and started wearing them to church in addition to all of her other frilly, ruffly frocks. Sometimes she even wore fairy wings and tiaras. It was fun, and cute, and we didn't see any harm in it. Honestly, I still don't think that there's any harm in it by itself. Unfortunately, wearing those dresses was reaping more consequences than just her temporary happiness, though we didn't realize it.

A couple of months ago, I pulled Bunny's hair out of some braids and her hair was all crimpy. “Ooh, look at that pretty curly hair!” I proclaimed! She thought it was great and wanted curly hair all the time. Night after night, I set about finding ways to make it curl, from braids, to buns, and finally to rag rolls. All those methods worked marvelously and Bunny felt so beautiful when her hair was curled. Then, one night, morning sickness took over and I was too sick to oblige her. “But Mommy, I won't be PRETTY if I don't have curly hair!” she whined and moaned.
     “Baby girl, that is not true. Straight hair and curly hair are both beautiful. Besides, you're beautiful no matter what.”

Bunny goes to daycare 2-4 days a week for 2-4 hours in the mornings, because I teach part time every morning. One day she came home from daycare a little down in the mouth. We were getting ready for naptime and she and proclaimed sadly, “Miss Katie didn't like my outfit today.”
     “What?” I asked. “What makes you think that?”
     “She didn't say she liked it.” Bunny responded matter-of-factly.
     “Well, dear, I'm sure she liked it but she was probably just too busy to say anything about it.”
That answer seemed to satisfy her just fine and she resumed her cheery face and we finished her naptime book and snuggle without incident.

Soon, Bunny started asking to wear a dress to daycare every day. Again, we didn't see the harm in it so for the next couple of weeks, Bunny wore any and every dress she had when she went to her learning center in the morning. I gave in to her requests for elaborate hairstyles and sparkly bows and barrettes and she even wore her favorite shoes, the ones she calls “clickety clack” shoes because of the way they make staccato sounds as she walks across our wooden floors. I found so much joy from seeing her glean happiness form the whole affair. Every day when I'd pick her up she'd be happy and cheery and tell me about how all her little friends loved her Snow White dress or how her teacher exclaimed and proclaimed about her pretty hair. Suddenly, Bunny was suddenly a little fashionista and seemed to be choosing her outfits to make a statement. I, not being into fashion anymore, found it odd, but didn't see any harm in it. In fact, I sort of liked letting my preschooler express her individuality in her clothing. Then, one day, I decided she'd worn enough dresses. I didn't really have a reason to decide it, but I guess I thought she needed a change. “Bunny,” I said that morning, “Why don't you wear pants or shorts today?” There was no calmly discussing the matter, just a riotous temper tantrum that ensued without any warning.
     “No, NO! I HAVE to wear a dress. I won't be BEAUTIFUL if I don't wear a dress,” she declared between screams and moans.” Warning bells sounded in my heart. Three years old and she was feeling this way already?
     “Um, well that settles it. You are NOT wearing a dress with that attitude. Bunny, you are beautiful no matter what you wear. You are beautiful when you wear pants, and you're wearing pants today.”
     Despite kicking and screaming through the whole morning routine, Bunny wore normal play clothes to daycare that day, like it or not.

My husband and I discussed the matter later and decided that she wasn't going to be allowed to wear a dress to daycare, at least for awhile, because we don't want her to think her beauty is dependent upon what she wears, or even what she looks like. We also decided that, though she is beautiful and we tell her all the time, we were going to start saying it less and stressing other amazing character traits that she has. Bunny, of course, wasn't happy with the decision that she couldn't wear a dress, but our minds were set and she would learn to comply. That following Monday, Bunny made bad choices in daycare. On one particular day, she was grumpy and out of sorts, and decided to push two of her little friends. Now, this is very unlike her. She has her moments, sure, but I never get bad behavior reports from daycare or church or babysitters concerning her. She has always made good choices in public. We dealt with the issue, and after apologies from her to all parties involved, we really started talking to her to try to get to the root of the matter. Something was making her upset and it was being manifest in her behavior towards others. Whether or not it had to do with her self-image, I don't know. The poor girl has dealt with a lot of changes lately--mostly due to my difficult pregnancy. In any case, in addition to constant reassurance and instruction, we felt she needed some incentive to make good choices. So we decided that if she was good all week at daycare, she would be allowed to wear a dress on Thursday--her last day there that week. She behaved as well as she always had before and earned her dress. Thursday came and she chose a lacy, light blue dress and I put her hair up in a bun like Cinderella's and topped it off with some pretty, sparkly blue barrettes and some white Mary Janes. She looked like a little doll. She went to daycare in very good spirits and came home to tell me how everyone liked her dress and how other girls in her class were wearing dresses too. The dress incentive seemed to be an effective one--though we still didn't know the cause of her self-image issues.

That afternoon, I had an appointment with my midwife. I took Bunny with me, as I always do, and being out in public with her while she was dressed that way while I was overly observant of her actions opened my eyes quite a bit. Literally every single person we talked to stopped and stared at her and exclaimed over her little dress, her hair, and her shoes. “Oh, look at you! Aren't you a pretty little girl! Wow, you look beautiful in that dress.” One person after another exploded in exuberant praise and Bunny beamed and soaked it all in like it was oxygen. Later, we went to the store and the praise continued. Cashiers commented without fail, and even some strangers noticed her and commented on how lovely she was. Granted, she is beautiful and does get these comments even in street clothes, but dressed like a princess, the comments were superfluous and non-stop and she couldn't get enough of it. That's when it dawned on me. Society was impressing upon her the importance of her physical and outward appearance. It wasn't me or Dave--though we weren't really helping while we were ignorant of the issue. Dave and I can work overtime to show her and teach her that her self-worth lies within and that she is precious and valuable for who God has made her to be inside. We can tell her that real beauty is kindness and sweetness and not what you wear. We can show her movies about how people who look ugly on the outside are really beautiful inside and read her books that help reinforce the theme. We can do all of this in the home, but the moment she steps outside the door, the world is going to teach her that she is wonderful because of her looks. It's utterly frustrating. As I sat there in my midwife's office surrounded by all these well-meaning nurses and secretaries who were exclaiming sweetly over my daughter, I knew I couldn't just coach them all and ask them not to say she was beautiful. I can't go before my daughter and prepare the way for her, prepping the world to emphasize the values her father and I want to instill within her. Our culture cares a lot about physical appearances and they will emphasize what they see. I'm ashamed I didn't see this earlier. It never occurred to me how it would affect my daughter to emphasize her beauty among the many other types of praises I give her. Granted, she could look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and I would still think she is the most beautiful little girl in the world, but all the same, making that characteristic important isn't good for her self image. I feel terribly that I've contributed to the fact that she feels she isn't beautiful if she isn't wearing a dress or her “clickity clack shoes,” or a barrette in her hair. I mean, what if her striking beauty is one day stripped away? What if, one day, she finds that she doesn't fit society's definition of beauty? It will be, eventually. Age will come and rob what youth has painted all over her features. Whether she's 13 or 30 when this happens will she suddenly feel worthless? I hope not. And with every breath in my body I plan on striving to let her know that her worth is in things far deeper than her outward beauty.

All I can do now is begin to emphasize those character traits that make her beautiful from the inside out. “Bunny, I loved how you were kind to your friend today. That makes you so beautiful.” Or “It was really sweet that you shared your dessert with Daddy. You didn't have to do that.” Or, “Sweetheart, do you know how much I love when you tell me stories? It's cool that God made you so creative.” It's not like I never say these things to her, but I guess I want to say them more. When I'm tempted to say, “You're so pretty” I think it is better to give a characteristic that makes her pretty. I'm new to this. I honestly don't know how to raise a little girl to know her self-worth and to realize that beauty is much deeper than her skin, but I'm trying. I'm an amateur and this is all I know how to do to help change the way she sees herself.

So Monday rolled around again, and Bunny had to wear pants to daycare. She was not happy about it. She begged, she pleaded, she tried to manipulate, and she cried, but she went to daycare wearing jeans and a T shirt that I, of course, let her help me pick out. Every day, my husband or I send her to school with a special lunch note with a drawing and some encouraging words and on Monday I drew a picture of a little blonde girl with a green shirt and jeans on and I wrote that she was beautiful even if she was wearing pants. “You're beautiful because of who you are, not what you wear.” I ended the note. It was a start, I know, but hopefully, the message will ultimately embed itself into her little heart.