How to help your child with their self image

Person looking out the window

Five year old friends sit cross legged on the floor, Barbie dolls, their clothes and accessories strewn around them. They share glittery sequined gowns and fake make up. They handle the Barbies perfectly shaped bodies, gaze down at the silky hair and rosebud lips and that image becomes indelibly planted in their brains. At ten or younger, they toss aside the Barbies in search of themselves. They spent hours in front of the mirror, preening and accessorizing. They squeeze into shirts, sizes too small, and stick their fingers down their throats in search of miniscule waists. They read their Teen mags to learn more about their role model’s painful journey towards becoming thinner than Twiggy. They walk through malls with their friends looking into stores that invite them to try on clothing better suited for an older teenager. Watch as Grade nine and ten students stream through the doors of their High School to see fourteen and fifteen year olds that look more like they’re in University. Their eyelashes heavily caked with mascara, their cheeks rosy red from more than the cold. The midriffs reveal piercings, their ears adorn heavy hoops and their hair colour changes regularly. What’s it all about?

Our society is heavily focused on the external self. I’ve heard parents regularly praise their daughters for how beautiful they look, but seldom on how moral or altruistic they are. I’ve seen countless television shows, originally produced for adults but often watched by their teens that focus on changing ones appearance in order to feel better inside. You only need to skim through the pages of a glossy magazine to realize that it’s how you look that society deems most important. All these messages with which children are bombarded can only serve to affect their self image.

Most little girls love stepping into their new dance recital costume and with their hair swept into a bun and their matching nylons, they look picture perfect. But why the makeup? I have always had a hard time understanding why a six year old needs to have their eyes and lips painted in order to shine more brilliantly under the lights on stage. Children are, by nature, absolutely beautiful. What does it matter if their eyes are that much larger as a result of black eye liner or their lips that much rosier as a result of the right shade of lipstick. And what message are we sending to our daughters by painting their faces at such a young age.

As the parent of a six and fourteen year old, I struggle with what is appropriate for my teenager while trying to make sure that my six year lives her childhood as a child. Don’t get me wrong. She too plays with Barbies but we do talk about how most people don’t actually look that way. When my fourteen year old recently talked about getting highlights – “its my hair, why can’t I?,” I struggled again. Since I am blessed with a teen who doesn’t regularly make such requests, I wanted to allow her to express herself while still being true to my own belief that the glorious mane of hair with which she was born should be good enough. In the end, after much discussion, we negotiated a deal that allowed her to have her desires realized to a lesser extent, while still allowing me to feel that she was not doing too much too soon.

Children have many years to be adults. Childhood is so fleeting. I encourage parents to be even more aware of the messages they’re sending their children when they offer praise, when they don’t supervise television shows or movies that are produced for adults, when they give in to every whim and desire when it comes to fashion and fancy. Let children be children.

for more information on this subject, check out a front page National Post article (April 1, 2006), entitled “For girls, is 12 the new 15?” in which Sara was quoted.

Reader Response:

“I just wanted to send a note to thank you so much for the article printed in Babbling Bananas about the hurried child. I was afraid no one thought this way anymore. My daughter has just turned three and I see her becoming aware of the external pressures of image already. Thank you for reminding us again how important it is to encourage their intellect and spirit.”
– Yolanda Mol Amelink, from Aurora, Ontario