From October 2010. Update at the end.
I linked last week to this post from a year ago: Princesses, princes, daughters and dads: a reprint against emotional incest. I stand by my thoughts in that piece still today. But reposting it reminded me that I haven’t written recently about Heloise (or HCRS, as we affectionately abbreviate her).
Our daughter is 21 months old. As of her last doctor’s visit, she’s in the 90th percentile for height and the 20th percentile for weight. She’s doing great on a vegan diet. So far, Heloise is not particularly interested in sports (balls and the like), but is very interested in clothing, and likes to go through her drawers and inspect what she has to wear. Heloise has got a rapidly expanding vocabulary and a great memory for people. She’s clearly social, perhaps even outright extroverted. Like her father, she likes to move quickly from one activity to the next, and is particularly interested in going to see friends and family. Our basic conversations often revolve around when we’re going to see Ruthie (her best friend) or “abuela” again. Walking down the street, she waves at strangers, saying “Hi” in an enthusiastic voice. When strangers don’t respond, Heloise looks confused and crestfallen — and it’s all her father can do not to walk up to those who have failed to notice my daughter’s greeting and tell them “Damn you, pay attention! My daughter said ‘hello!’”
And I notice the compliments she gets. Parents are hopelessly biased, of course. But it is rare that she is out in public without being told by strangers and acquaintances and relatives alike how beautiful she is. Some of that focus on her looks is perhaps due to her very special cuteness; some of it is the way in which we are socialized to praise girls for their prettiness. As a feminist and a father, as well as a professor and a youth leader who has spent much of my adult life working with teens around body image issues, I am acutely aware of how compliments at an early age shape young women’s identity. I am equally aware that as parents, my wife and I cannot entirely insulate our daughter against the most pernicious aspects of beauty culture. But we do what we can.
One thing we do is praise Heloise for things besides her beauty. When she remembers the names of the characters in her “Dora the Explorer” books; when she helps pick up her toys; when she successfully gets herself up and down the slide on her playset unassisted, we respond with wild enthusiasm. I know better than to never praise her looks: when everyone else is telling you something your Dad never mentions, that can make matters much worse (as anyone who works with teens knows.) But Heloise hears far more often how much she is loved, and how much her achievements delight her parents. There will come a time when she will learn that she can’t expect applause for performing routine tasks, but that time is not yet. At this age, I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a child with too much validation.
I also know that having loving and affirming parents isn’t always a prophylaxis against poor self-image. Mothers and fathers play a part, but so too do peers and the culture at large — with each passing year, indeed, our parental influence will diminish slightly as the other two influences grow. There is only so much that can be done to forestall that more or less inevitable process.
Whenever I change my daughter’s diaper, or take off her clothes, or give her a bath, I ask permission. I’ve done that since she was a newborn. “Heloise,” I’ll say softly, “papa’s gonna change your diaper. Is that okay?” Until recently, I got no reply. About six weeks ago, she finally started weighing in, usually with a “yes”. When she says no, I briefly — and I do mean briefly — discuss it with her. “But honey, you’re wet and you need your diaper changed.” That seems to do the trick. (It may not always, and I’m prepared for that.) Continue reading