Your world can be changed with three little words and they are not “I love you.”
Last week a dear friend and co-member from my Parents Anonymous Group contacted me to ask me a strange and perplexing question.
“Do I have a singsong voice?” Carley asked worried. “I think it has something to do with autism. I hate how I sound— I hate it so much.”
Without even thinking I shot back, “I had small boobs and thin hair. We all have something that we don’t like. If you focus on that it will only seem to get worse.”
Either way, Carley was unhappy because someone brought attention to her slight impediment and made her feel simply miserable. I wonder, what gives a nameless person feel they have the right to define another human being as less than?
A couple of days later I was asked for a photograph of myself for an article and found two current photos acceptable to me, even though both are unflattering. I joked that my grandmother and I used to argue who was uglier. (True.) I am painfully aware of my looks since my face was changed by taking a medication called Prednisone (a steroid) for asthma. Before Prednisone, I might have been considered ‘normal’ looking. But as my face changed, I became more unattractive as years passed and I even remember frightening small children. Since 99% of my volunteering is done online or on the phone, few people knew what I looked like. When I finally met people face-to-face at a conference I was hit with several surprising comments.
“You? You are Jackie?”
Like, I would go as someone else.
“It’s funny— you don’t look like you sound on the phone!”
Oh wait, does ugly have a different sound?
“Jackie? I can’t believe it’s you!”
I can’t believe it’s me either— (ha-ha-ha) but it is!
These wonderful people were all caught the act of being perfectly human. That’s right, human. It’s a good thing I am comfortable in my own skin or I might have been pretty upset. Carley apparently was not, she had been upset for days.
What does this have to do with children— yours and mine?
Kids (and adults) can be very cruel sometimes whether they mean to be or not. Almost every child will get picked on or bullied from time to time because their ears stick out a bit or their teeth are crooked or they have a nasal quality to their voice. Children have not yet come to appreciate the richness of our diversity.
Just exactly what is ugly? Ugly is relative; I would define it as anything that causes unhappiness within a person about their own physical appearance. Each individual is in charge of what defines beauty or ugliness for them, even if they do not know that yet. No individual has the capacity or right to define that for another.
Many years ago, nine-year-old Chelsey came home from school upset, telling me about a boy in her class who told her she was “ugly.” To her it was the end of the world; how could she possibly go on, life just wasn’t worth living. As I watched her make a sandwich my heart was breaking and my anger was building. At that moment I could have easily hurt someone for making my daughter feel this way. But it wasn’t about me or that kid— it was about trying to help her over this hurdle before the next, inevitable hurdle came. I told Chelsey to get a bully to leave her alone she needed to show him that his mean comments did not bother her. When bullies do not get the expected reaction, they will usually go away— or to look for another victim. What was my advice to Chelsey?
“If you think I’m ugly— you should see my sister!” Chelsey said, exactly as rehearsed.
Chelsey successfully used the comeback to completely defuse the bully and send him on his way. She told me it was the first time she ever said anything back in her defense but it worked like a charm.
How can you help your son or daughter in relation to beauty or ugliness?
Realize you can work with what you have. If a child is unhappy with an aspect of their body, you can help them to an extent. Keeping bathed and well-groomed is a good start. If the issue is weight, it could be changed somewhat by proper nutrition and physical activity. If the problem is pimples then proper care and time will remedy that.
Parents can help children find options according to what each child wants. (I am not talking surgery.) A different hair style or change in the color of clothing can help to present a more pleasant appearance. Wearing clean, unwrinkled clothes, no matter how old they are, can contribute.
Parents model behaviors we want to see in our children. When parents are overly critical of their own appearances, children often learn to find fault in their bodies. When mom or dad express little concerning over crooked teeth or balding head, children tend to adopt similar attitudes.
Until children learn about empathy, compassion and kindness, it is up to us as parents to teach our children about those qualities and to model them every single day. It is also our job to instill in our children a strong sense of who they are in the world and a healthy self-esteem in order to immunize them against those cruel comments.
Be mindful how I react to others. Do I move away from people of other races? Do I look a person in the eyes and speak when they are in a wheelchair? Do I greet people with Down syndrome? Do I look past people to avoid contact? When speaking to someone with crossed eyes, do I feel uncomfortable? Am I inclusive of others in conversation?
Simply being aware of these points can help to minimize less desirable reactions and model positive behaviors for our children. Eliminating ‘people-blindness’ by speaking to and acknowledging people who are different can speak volumes. A journalist once spent a week as a homeless person and one experience stood out most of all— people looked around or through her rather than acknowledging her existence. When approaching someone in a wheelchair, look them in the eye and smile or nod— you could even spark conversation!
Develop a sincere appreciation for racial traits (yours and others). Explore other races and learn about characteristics that stand out: Native American cheekbones, Asian’s almond-shaped eyes, African American behinds (bums), etc. Did you know Hispanic eyelashes grow down instead of up? Why do many Asian women have surgery to change the shape of their eyelids? An inquisitive appreciation with respect helps build a healthy self-esteem.
Teach children early and often to hold attractiveness (beauty, prettiness, handsomeness) up to the light as being much more than skin deep. The inner qualities you cannot see have a greater value: honesty, loyalty, perseverance, ethical, cheerful, etc. A person who would be mean to anyone else loses attractiveness pretty quick.
Show children they are who they are, not what they look like. List their good qualities (be genuine) that you see: helpful, cheerful, sense of humor, smart, creative, thoughtful, kind, fun, interesting, a leader, questioning, charitable, conscientious, courteous, warm, organized, intuitive, practical, etc.
Put your kids in charge. Teach them that is they who will define themselves by their behaviors, words and accomplishments— not another person. When an unkind person puts a label on them – ugly, stupid, stinky, etc. – ask them if they accept or reject that label.
Poster Activity: Have children find pictures in magazines or draw them to depict their choice of labels to show how they define themselves. Have kids glue the pictures onto any size poster board and label them. Parents and siblings can offer labels for the poster and show the child how to accept or reject each label.
“Do not let others define who you are. Do not let others dictate your worth. It is our collective differences that make us such a great country.”
This short cartoon is well-done and can be played for your children:
“Recess” “The Ratings Game” Season 3 Episode 16
Copy/paste the URL into your browser: http://youtu.be/M6CHncHtqeo
Disney TOON Channel – YouTube Recess episode, the ratings game (10 minutes)
Written by Ilana Wernick and Holly Huckins
This one is for you, Carley— you go Girl!