Is TV making 3 year old focus on looking pretty?

Hi Dr. Laura,
I have a 3 1/2 year old daughter and I am starting to feel that the tv programs I have allowed her to watch are having a negative impact on her. She doesn't watch anything that anyone would say is inappropriate per se but I feel that the shows she really likes are very superficial and focus on "looks", ways of dressing, being a "princess" etc etc. She now will only wear dresses, very picky about what she looks like because she says she has to "look pretty". I'm devastated about this and am wondering what steps I can take to sort of reverse her thinking in regards to body image and what is important in life. I know she is young so I'm hoping I can make a positive impact on her. Thanks for your advice

What you are seeing in your daughter is indeed confirmed by all the research on TV watching. In fact, females of all ages who watch TV are more anxious about their appearance and have more negative body images. Unfortunately our society is pervaded by the message that the value of women lies mostly in their attractiveness to men, so what matters above all else is looking good.

I hasten to add, though, that there is something developmental going on, beyond TV. My own daughter never watched TV, yet still went through a pink dress "princess" stage at age four. And many boys that age are also drawn to the glitter and glamour. So most kids, girls and boys, do outgrow the princess stage. My own daughter went on to become a "tomboy" and then a staunch feminist. But you're right that if we give kids the message during their formative years that appearance is what matters, we undermine their moral development and their self esteem, so you're right to be thinking about an antidote. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

 

1. Help your daughter develop unshakeable self esteem. There are many articles on this on the Aha! Parenting website. Here's a good place to begin:

How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child

2. Help your daughter love her body. Remember that you're her primary role model. Never make negative remarks about your body or the body of any female. Model healthy eating without obsessing or dieting (it doesn't work and creates a negative self image). For more on this essential topic, I highly recommend 101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body; they begin with the preschool years.

3. Help your daughter become the judge of whether she's good enough, instead of relying on external feedback. This means weaning yourself off praise that evaluates (like "Good job! That's the best painting ever! You're a great artist!") and instead giving encouragement and sharing her excitement about her accomplishments, but letting her do the evaluating ("You finished your painting! Tell me about it. What do you think? What do you like about it?")

4. Teach cultural literacy so your daughter begins to examine the messages that come at her and evaluates them rather than letting them define her. Find books that directly question the princess myth and read them with her, such as The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Princess Backwards by Jane Gray.

The Lauren Mills books also deal with these issues about what's pretty in the most wonderful way, and are so beautifully illustrated that they're collector's items. I recommend them highly for any girl who's drawn to princesses and fairies.

Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins

Fairy Wings

The Rag Coat

Use all these books (and the many others that must be out there) to begin discussions with your daughter. Your aim is to examine the stereotypes and beliefs she is forming, without attacking or embarrassing her, or putting her on the defensive. You might want to ask questions like:

Why is it important to be pretty?
Who decides when someone is pretty?
What do you have to look like to be pretty?
Is prettiness innate or is it something we can make ourselves?
Does making ourselves pretty have a cost? (for instance, comfort, or adventure, or fun.)
Is she pretty? How does she know?
Is someone pretty who acts ugly?
Is someone pretty who is in rags but acts bravely and with caring?
What matters most, prettiness or being strong, smart, brave, responsible, caring, etc?

I'm sure that once you get started, you'll have many more questions to explore. Good luck with these discussions. They are so important to be having with our daughters.

Finally, here is a terrific blog entry by Natalie at Feeleez that addresses this issue beautifully, particularly the question of what's "pretty."

 

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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