In my 5-year-old mind, dimples gave my little sister, Michelle, magical powers: They brought adults to their knees. After the initial equal-time niceties with grown-ups saying things like "Aren't you two just the cutest little girls," they'd zero in on my sister's dimples, and the fawning would begin. That attention would give her the chutzpah to go for the front seat of the car, the biggest slice of chocolate cake, the best of everything. Though our mother never played favorites, I still felt like I was the runner-up. It started with the dimples, and from there, our physical differences grew exponentially. By the time I was 7, the same adults who fawned over Michelle were also making snide comments about the gap in my front teeth or my extra weight. Despite what they say about sticks and stones, I found words really hurt -- especially when they come from people you love and respect.
My experience made me extra-vigilant in protecting my son from similar ridicule. I made clear to every adult in his life -- grandparents, caregivers, teachers -- that his baby fat was a sensitive topic for him and me. I was relieved when he sailed through preschool, but in elementary school the extra pounds clung to him, and I had a hard time suppressing the power of the playground. Soon, embarrassed by the attention schoolmates paid to his chubby cheeks, he found himself retreating into the same sad, shy existence I lived through for years.
Children tend to start off without any hang-ups about themselves (how else do you explain the toddler predilection for stripping?). But they begin to notice physical differences as early as age 2, says Darlene Powell-Garlington, Ph.D., a Southington, Connecticut, psychologist and coauthor of Raising the Rainbow Generation: Teaching Your Children to Be Successful in a Multicultural Society. Sometime between 3 and 5, they start to attach meanings to these differences based on cues they pick up from others. How your child accepts what sets him apart can play a major role in shaping the way he feels about himself. But learning to appreciate freckles or ears that poke out in our image-obsessed society requires a careful mix of self-esteem boosting and praise. Five ways to help your child appreciate who he is:
Yanick Rice Lamb teaches journalism at Howard University in Washington, DC. She's the coauthor of Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson.
1. Teach respect for others' differencesKids are naturally curious and acutely aware of physical differences, so they'll notice -- and ask about -- a classmate on crutches or the boy with an Afro on the swings. "Use it as an opportunity to explain that people come in myriad sizes, shapes, and colors," says Jonathan Bloomberg, M.D., a psychiatrist and director of the Bloomberg Institute in Northbrook, Illinois, and the father of five boys. "It's also a good time to talk about tolerance," he adds, which will in turn help your child embrace his own differences.
Diana Gruenewald of Lake Forest Park, Washington, often has such talks with her son Matthew, age 6, particularly now that he's in a school with kids from various racial and ethnic groups, as well as some who have developmental or physical disabilities. "I explain that everyone looks different, but nobody's better -- just different," she says.
If your child's school or neighborhood isn't diverse, you can borrow library books and videos or give him toys that feature a range of characters, or try taking him to playgrounds, cultural events, and other activities that tend to draw multicultural crowds. At the same time, it's enriching for a child to be exposed to the traditions, culture, and foods of his own heritage.
Still, the boy with the Afro may not appreciate hearing your conversation about his hair. Remind your child that making observations about someone within earshot -- however innocent -- could be insulting, and that he should wait until he gets home to ask questions about what he saw. This will give you the chance to discuss people's differences in a candid and meaningful way.
2. Instill a sense of prideWhen Melanie Harris's 2-year-old daughter, Jenna, was diagnosed with a hearing loss, a few friends suggested that she outfit her child with tiny or clear hearing aids and let her hair hide them. But Harris, a single mom in Chicago, wanted her daughter to consider her hearing aid "a special gift" that helps her hear better, just as glasses help some people see better. "I ordered them in a bright fuchsia color to help make her proud of them," she says. "Jenna shows them off to all her buddies, and they think they're cool."
Highlighting, rather than hiding, your child's differences, whether she's in a wheelchair or simply not the same color as her playmates, sends a strong message: What makes her stand out is something to be celebrated rather than be ashamed about.
It's also important to let kids experience success in big and little ways, whether it's learning how to ride a bike or simply helping you count forks and napkins for dinner. When they get to develop skills, and then have the chance to show them off, it goes a long way toward making children feel proud.
3. Check adults when they make inappropriate commentsWhile my mom always tried to make me feel good about myself, other adults would undo her efforts when she wasn't around. I didn't feel comfortable ratting out grown-ups who behaved badly, and your child may be too scared or shy, or just too young, to find the right words to defend herself politely from insensitive comments. That's why you need to speak up, especially when grown-ups are critical of a child's looks or compare one kid to another. No need to be publicly confrontational -- just direct. "Take that person aside and say, 'This is hurtful to my child, and I really don't want you to make comments like that,'" says Powell-Garlington.
Ruth Lewis* of Edison, New Jersey, had to have a candid conversation with her daughter's preschool teacher when she noticed a difference in the way she greeted Lewis's then-3-year-old doe-eyed, brown-haired daughter, Ashley*, and her classmate, blond-haired, blue-eyed Penelope*. Ashley would get a simple "Good morning" but the teacher would compliment Penelope, saying, "Oh, don't you look pretty today!"
Ashley apparently picked up on the difference, too. "She started going for the blond dolls and kept saying how beautiful they were," Lewis said.
When Lewis brought the problem to the teacher's attention, she was apologetic and quite stunned that she'd fallen into such a pattern, and quickly changed her behavior.
4. Show her the mirrorLewis also did a bit of damage control to counteract the subtle beauty messages her daughter picked up from comparing herself to her blond friend. "I'd frequently tell Ashley how pretty she is and what beautiful brown hair and eyes she has," she says. She also encouraged Ashley to play with a rainbow of dolls -- including ones with the same hair and eye color that she has -- and emphasized that they're all attractive.
"I also try to shore her up in a lot of different ways that have nothing to do with looks," adds Lewis, whose daughter is now 7. "I tell her that she's smart. She's athletic, so I encourage her to participate in sports. I think she feels very good about herself."
African-American parents must be especially vigilant, says Powell-Garlington, because some physical traits -- dark skin, tightly coiled hair, thick lips -- aren't as widely embraced by society, even by other blacks. "The more you affirm your kids' beauty and build their self-esteem, the more they'll internalize it," she says.
Bettye Barber* of Columbia, South Carolina, took this to heart when her daughter, 5-year-old Mikki*, became upset over the fact that her bead-adorned braids were too short to shake and clank like Zaria's*, her 2-year-old sister, whose hair is shoulder length. "I had to do some fast talking," Barber explains. "I told her about how beautiful her hair is and how everybody has different hair lengths, and that when her hair is in its natural state, it's just like Mommy's."
Of course you don't want to pile on the praise so much that your child can't keep her little ego in check. So it's also important to emphasize that beauty has a wide range. You might say to her, "Yes, you're beautiful, but so is she."
5. Teach them to stand up for themselvesWhen Rhonda Ayodele Terry of Teaneck, New Jersey, was pregnant, she twisted her hair so that the strands would merge to form dreadlocks, a natural style she says provided a stronger spiritual connection to her African heritage. Eager to share that experience with her sons, Cazembe, Jabari, and Sayeed, ages 8, 6, and 5, and help them connect with their culture, she styled their hair the same way. But when strangers see the boys, they often say, "Oh, your daughters are beautiful!" and children tease them saying, "You look like a girl!"
Terry's youngest, Sayeed, is mostly oblivious to the comments, but his older brothers have been a bit more sensitive -- Jabari even cried a few times when the ridicule was particularly harsh. "I didn't want them to internalize it," says Terry, "but the power of suggestion is so strong."
Learning to respond to teasing is part of learning how to socialize and make friends, but it can still hurt. If a child reacts by crying, it can make the teasing worse. To help build up his confidence and verbal repartee, "Tell him you're going to have 'teasing practice,' and say something silly like, 'You have purple hair!'" says Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who is cofounder and codirector of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media. "To a four- or five-year-old, that's funny, and he'll have an easier time learning how to say 'No I don't!' without feeling intimidated or ashamed."
Terry tells her boys that they're handsome and points out men who wear their hair similarly. She'll also point out girls with short Afros and ask, "Does she look like a boy?" Now Jabari no longer cries when kids tease him. Instead, he says, "You know I'm not a girl!" And then he goes back to playing, with his locks swinging and his head held high. Still, even though we want our children to celebrate what makes them unique, there will be many times when they'll just want to be like other kids -- whether it's by wearing the same brand of jeans or carrying the same SpongeBob notebook. And sometimes it's okay to let your child fit in.
Be careful, though, not to cave in to the onslaught of messages, subtle and overt, that emphasize a certain definition of beauty -- often defined as being blond, slim, and sexy. If your child insists she's not attractive because she doesn't fit into this mold, it's time for a candid talk. Look at pictures of characters and celebrities who catch your child's eye, and talk about more than their appearance. For younger children, you might try asking "What do you think is important to them?"
As your child grows older and she can understand more, you can be frank: Explain that celebrities don't really look like they do in photos and talk about the hair stylists and makeup artists, as well as all the retouching, that help them look the way they do.
I did a lot of talking with my son when he hit his low point, and thankfully, he didn't stay there as long as I did when I was a child. For starters, he didn't put on as much weight as I had, and what he did gain melted off naturally with his growth spurts and enthusiasm on the baseball field. We also enclosed him in a circle of love -- with lots of hugs and kisses, and just the right amount of praise for his helpfulness, fun personality, and ability to hit a ball farther than any of his friends. Before long, he felt as happy and handsome as ever -- and he's still that way.