I would be willing to bet that most compliments paid to infants and toddlers are in regard to appearance. Of course, this is understandable considering we can't really highlight an infant's sparkling personality or good deeds accomplished. Chances are we heard, "What a beautiful baby," on numerous occasions when our daughters were just infants. And chances are, we have said it countless times to others. While our infants are unable to absorb the message, it won't be long before they do. My daughter, now eighteen, was often complimented as a baby for her blonde curls, blue eyes, fair skin, and teeny-tiny frame. She hardly looked old enough to walk when she took her first steps, and many claimed she looked like a little porcelain china doll. And trust me, by the age of two, she had taken note of each and every compliment.
The appearance-based compliments (from others and myself) continued through her toddler years. Until an occasion when she was four years old, I didn't realize there might be a downside to the praises. It was picture day at her preschool and I had dressed her up in a beautiful dress with a matching hair ribbon that held back her sweeping long blonde curls. As she was walking into the door of the classroom that morning, her teacher said, "Paige, you look so pretty!" Paige's response without even missing a beat was, "I know. Everyone tells me that."
Yikes! Of course, this was long before I was writing about the dangers of misdefined worth, not to mention I was hardly qualified since I was clearly part of the problem. From that day forward, I tried to emphasize her character qualities and de-emphasize her physical beauty. If she grew dependent on the compliments, what would become of her self-esteem when she entered the gawky, adolescent phase? You remember it, don't you? Pimples, bad hair days, and a body that often seemed out of control — truth be told, many of us are still in recovery from those days!
We must be careful to find a healthy balance when it comes to complimenting our child's appearance, especially in the early years. On the one hand, our girls naturally want to be told they are pretty. If we don't tell them, it could leave them craving male attention in the years to come. On the other hand, we don't want to go overboard and send a message that worth is based on what they look like. This, in turn, could set them up for disappointment when the compliments diminish over the years.
As your daughter moves through grade school, she will begin to absorb the culture's message regarding beauty. Whether she is being influenced primarily by the media or her friends, one thing is for certain: she is hearing a buzz about what constitutes beauty in the world's eyes. It will be especially important in these years to have open communication with your daughter regarding these messages. Take advantage of teachable moments, whether they are ads you come across or a comment made by a friend. Remind her of 1 Samuel 16:17 and how God looks at the heart while the world looks at appearance. Continue to remind her of this passage as she moves through grade school. If she struggles with weight, emphasize a healthy diet and exercise and make sure you are practicing it yourself. Rather than nag her about eating too many sweets or snacks, try to reduce the temptation by minimizing them in your home. Lead by example. Whatever you do, never shame her about weight, even jokingly.
If your daughter seems to be overly attentive in these years to appearance and body image issues, you might want to look closely at her immediate circle to see where the influence is coming from. Is it a friend? Is she exposed to messages in the media that she is too young to process? (For example, is she allowed to watch PG-13 movies, watch shows on TV or listen to music that supports a narrow and unrealistic definition of beauty?) Could you or your husband be focusing too much on appearance and sending her the wrong message? If you see warning signs, do what you can to reverse the damage, even if it means seeing a counselor or nutritionist. Many eating disorders take root in these years and, if not addressed, will only get worse.
Again, emphasize virtue and character qualities over appearance. This doesn't mean you go overboard and tell her appearance doesn't matter. The message should always be temple maintenance: healthy weight range, good eating habits, exercise, positive grooming habits. Because girls are developing earlier, your daughter will be exposed to many shapes and sizes during these years. It's important that you don't make comments about other girls (or your daughter) in these years that could leave them feeling inferior or worried about their own development process. As they move into the latter years of grammar school, begin necessary conversations with them about the process their body (and their friends' bodies) will go through as they move from girlhood to womanhood.
When I surveyed adult Christian women, one of the questions I asked them was: "What sort of message did you receive from your mom and/or dad regarding weight/body image when you were growing up?" Many women shared that even today they could still remember exact phrases and the sting they felt over comments made by their parents during their middle and high school years.
"Are you sure you want seconds?"
"Have you checked the calorie count in that cookie?"
"You might want to lay off the ______."
"You're never going to get a husband if you keep eating like that."
Comments such as the ones above, made even in jest, will have an impact on our daughters. Even if your daughter needs to lose weight, it's best if the pediatrician breaks the news rather than her hearing it in the form of constant nagging by a parent. And for the record, if the pediatrician isn't worried, you shouldn't be either. Again, a better approach would be to emphasize nutrition and exercise and lead by example. Practice it; don't preach it.
For most of our daughters, the change in body shape will be most drastic in the span of years from twelve to eighteen. Most girls will have their womanly shape by the time they graduate high school. Many girls are caught off guard in these years when their bodies transition (almost overnight, it seems) from girlhood to womanhood. We must make sure they know that this is normal and part of God's design to prepare them someday to bear children. Never assume that they will naturally absorb that truth by osmosis!
One thing I have made an effort to do with my own daughter is to educate her to the reality of her weight and shape changing over the years. While I have gained weight over the years, I am still in a healthy weight range so I point that out to her. I pray that as she witnesses my confidence, she will have a healthier attitude in the years to come. Even if you are not currently within a healthy weight range and are in the process of losing weight, you can still model a healthy attitude regarding weight and nutrition.
If your daughter is in the twelve to eighteen age range, make sure your comments related to appearance, weight, and body shape of your daughter (and others) are scarce. If you are preoccupied with these things, chances are, your daughter will be as well. Allow your daughter to hear you compliment women who are truly worthy of being labeled beautiful — those who are virtuous. Limit your daughter's exposure to the key offenders I mentioned [earlier]; and when she is exposed to lies, take advantage of teachable moments. Most importantly, keep the conversation going over the years and remind her often, "You are not the sum of your parts."