by Gretchin Gifford
Yesterday morning my husband, Mark, and I were standing in the kitchen when Ellie came into the room, spun around, and made quite the declaration.
“I’m beautiful!” she said.
“Yes, you are!” I responded cheerily.
I could see concern on Mark’s face. “You know,” he chimed in, ” I read recently…”
“I know what you read,” I interrupted. “And I know what you’re going to say.”
The internet is bursting with articles about everything parents should be doing differently; How to raise children “correctly.”
Confident, but not too confident. Smart and outgoing, but not conceited. Kind and generous, but self-preserving.
And I’ve long-since decided to skip over those articles.
It’s too much information. I can’t implement all those ideas. And it results in a parenting shame spiral.
Mark continued, “Should we really be telling her that she’s beautiful… you know, all the time?”
I waved my hand dismissively. “I know, I know. The internet says that you shouldn’t praise your children based on their looks. It puts too much emphasis on looks versus brains and blah blah blah.”
I told him I’d explain later.
It’s a lot to get into during the 5-minute rush out the door.
Women in my family have told me to be careful about praising my daughter’s looks too much. I remember my own mother telling me I was beautiful as a child. And I remember her sister’s warning: “You’re going to make her conceited.”
But now it’s my turn to be a mother, and I have to do what feels right in my heart. Even when I act on emotion before I’ve thought it through. Before I’ve Googled all the pros and cons.
I know what it means in my heart to tell my 2-year-old that she’s “beautiful” and “pretty.” It feels right, true.
My heart swells with joy and pride as I watch this little creature while she dances and spins, her eyes wide with excitement and wonder. Brown curls fall over plump baby cheeks. Messy bangs tangle in long eyelashes. Big brown eyes take in the world.
Her smile radiates warmth, acceptance, and love. She has empathy for the tiniest little ladybug, for her stuffed doggie, for Auntie Bee’s pugs, for the elderly woman in line at the pharmacy.
“You are beautiful,” I say, proudly.
Of course, I tell her that she’s beautiful inside and out–and also that she is creative, kind, smart, and giving.
I praise her in context.
“You were so kind to that woman when you introduced yourself!” And “Wow, what a smart solution to that problem!” to define for her those qualities that characterize inner beauty.
But in addition to inner beauty, is it so bad for her to feel beautiful on the outside?
She is a perfect human being. Her hair is beautiful, her eyes, her little body–not because they look a certain way or conform to some cultural standard of beauty, but because she is a wondrous little creature of light. A miracle.
I think that now is the time to build this foundation. I want Ellie to feel beautiful on the outside. I make sure her physical characteristics mean something more than a superficial idea of what beauty should be.
I tell her that she has her father’s hair, my eyes, Grammie’s hands. I want her to feel that her appearance is a beautiful reflection of our family, her journey through life.
Eventually, some other child will tell her that her clothes aren’t “right,” that there’s something wrong with the tiniest part of her body. That she’s ugly.
And I can only hope that my voice sounds louder in her ears and heart — telling her that she is perfect. Reminding her that “beautiful” is a state of mind–a state of accepting oneself completely.
Even in the face of adversity and criticism. Even when there’s something you want to change about your body or your life. To be able to assess yourself fairly and feel okay with who you are NOW. To look at perceived mistakes or flaws and know that it’s all part of growing, transforming.
Your beauty will grow and transform as you do.
I’ve also considered that I may need to explain to her, eventually, why it isn’t entirely appropriate to stand up in a crowd, spin around with a handful of scarves, and shout, “I’m beautiful!”
Maybe society would say that she’s conceited. That she thinks she’s better than everyone else.
But is that really true?
I don’t think so.
Because there’s a difference between confidence and conceit.
My child is cheering for herself, celebrating her uniqueness. She feels important, confident, special. She’s not taking away from anyone else’s beauty or setting herself above others.
When Ellie celebrates herself in that way, we can all see her true beauty.
And maybe we can aspire to feel that beautiful, too.
About the Author
Gretchin is a silly, artsy mama from Vermont, who loves exploring the Green Mountain State with her husband and toddler. She’s a little different from the average mom in that, most of her parental coping skills involve singing, dancing, putting on silly theatricals, and painting rocks. Her house is one filled with imagination, where magic is real, and where boots get sad when they have no feet to dance with. Gretchin is an Editor at a publishing company by day and a Freelance Graphic Designer by night. She is surrounded by love, buried in laundry, and looking for her coffee cup in a pile of unfinished art projects.