I Talked to My Daughter About Self-Esteem, and There Was Only One Casualty

78743100It’s a beautiful, crisp autumn day, and I’m driving my daughter to school just like always. I have the window rolled down to let in the fresh cool air, but Emma asks me to keep it closed this morning. She’s a little chilly and hadn’t expected the weather to turn colder so quickly. Dutifully, I oblige. And man, I’m sure glad I did!

A brief flash of something white and then, suddenly, THUMP! a bird flies right into my window. Had the window been lowered like I had intended, I’m sure it would have flown right into my head. It careened off my car wildly, probably suffering some kind of trauma because I saw it fly right into the car behind me and careen off of it as well. Feathers were flying everywhere, and I was sure that bird’s day was done.

From the back seat, upon hearing the THUMP, Emma exclaimed, “Dad! What was that?” When I told her, she couldn’t help but laugh at how silly it all sounded. I had to admit it was pretty funny (poor bird).

Then she said something that made me stop laughing: “Boy, I sure hope that bird wasn’t cute.”

She said it out of complete innocence, not intending any kind of real meaning at all. But it set off a trigger in my head. Having been overweight most of my life, I know what it’s like to be rejected based on your looks. And although I know Emma wasn’t being even one percent mean-spirited, I took the opportunity to make this a teaching moment (although I’m pretty sure she’s tired of those).

“Do you think that bird only has value is if it’s cute?” I asked her.

“No,” she replied.

“Well, we have to be careful not to judge the value of a life based solely on its looks. If that bird had been ugly, would it have been worth less?”

“No,” she replied again.

The truth is, Emma is one of the most caring kids I know and would never judge someone by their looks alone. I’ve never seen her think less of someone because of it; she routinely makes friends with people of all sorts, which I love. I’m sure I overreacted to a really innocent response.

In fact, even my overreaction gave me pause. I realized my own hypersensitivity to the subject of body image. I’m overweight. I’m not happy about it. And it made me think of just how pervasive the value of physical attractiveness is in our lives and the lives of our children. They learn, incorrectly, from so many places that “cuteness” makes something (or someone) even more deserving of sympathy, nurturing, care … love. I know she doesn’t love me any less because of my body type, but I wouldn’t ever want her to look at anybody else through that lens either.

Not that we can help it necessarily. We are naturally attracted to “cute” things. It’s part of our DNA, at least if you believe the research done by scientists like Konrad Lorenz. He hypothesized (and has been supported in follow-up studies) that cuteness is part of our natural evolution. Babies are born “cute” so that adults feel a natural inclination to protect and nurture them. That attraction to all things cute extends to animals and even non-living objects (i.e. Beanie Babies).

But the danger comes when we emphasize one trait over another to the point where we devalue people based solely on whether they have “it” or not. It happens all the time — we elevate people based on their appearance alone and look down on others by the same criteria. We do this even to people we consider beautiful already! Every year at the Academy Awards, we praise those who wear attractive outfits (almost always women by the way) and ridicule those who make choices we don’t agree with. Do we really care that much? Or are we just looking for a reason to look down on others?

Because being judgmental is so pervasive in our popular culture, we need to do what we can to prevent it with our children. As parents, it’s a good idea to model non-judgmental behavior and find worth in many different ways so that our kids will do the same. Does a simple comment about the cuteness of a bird matter this much? I’m not sure. Maybe yes. Maybe no.

I drove back the same way I went on that morning, and thankfully the bird was gone. I’m hopeful that it recovered and flew away and will go on to live a productive life. But if I ever see it again, maybe I’ll give it a little birdie helmet.

Image: Thinkstock.


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