Why I tell my children they’re beautiful

Contrary to popular parenting wisdom, I tell my kids they’re beautiful – often. I admire their beautiful eyes, silky hair and strong legs. I’m envious of the gorgeous glow they get when they spend some time in the sun. When they were babies, they would lie in the crook of my arm and I would marvel – just marvel – at the beauty of these tiny beings.

I get why we are told as parents – especially parents of little girls – not to ever, ever comment on the appearance of our children. I’m not blind to the horrors of pre-teen anorexia and bulimia; beauty pageants for the under-5’s and a media-driven focus on looks over character. But here are a few reasons why I won’t stop telling my children they’re beautiful:

They are God’s creations

I am a lover of nature and of beauty. Together with my children, I admire fiery African sunrises and sunsets, full moons, pretty butterflies and delicate flowers. My children’s perfect pearly toenails and peachy skin are no less perfect or beautiful than these creations and to pretend not to see that, would be to deny the Creator himself/herself.

We are mind, body and spirit

We are not just bodies – that is true. We are also not just minds. We are a glorious triad of mind, body and spirit and all of us should we working towards greater harmony between the three. To teach children that they are just minds or that their bodies are only important for what they do , is I think a very sad reflection on our productivity obsessed culture. Our bodies are where we (our souls, our spirits) live. I love it when friends admire aspects of my home. They gracefully overlook the pile of laundry in the corner of the bedroom and the unwashed dishes and compliment me on my new paint colours or the freshly upholstered couches. My house is not who I am – of course – but it is a reflection of our family and what we deem valuable in life and I appreciate my friends noticing what is beautiful and honest about it. Why would our bodies, our earthly homes, be any different?

I am giving them ammunition

It it true that what we tell our children about themselves is what they internalize, and the way in which we talk to them becomes their inner voice. I am under no illusions that the world will choose not to ever criticize their bodies or how they look. None of us ever go through life without being told we are fat or have funny teeth or knobbly knees. Children are cruel – but so are adults. By telling my kids they are beautiful, and what exactly I mean by that (“I love the way your eyes sparkle when you tell me stories!”) I am giving them ammunition to throw at the feet of their future detractors. (“Knobbly knees? That might be so…but my mom told me over and over again how beautiful my eyes are.”)

I am teaching them how to talk to others

I have a sweet friend who finds something to compliment about my appearance every time she sees me. No matter how disheveled I feel (and am sure, appear) she mentions my pretty earrings, or how much she likes my new hairstyle or asks me where I got my shoes. These are little, little things, but in my busy day as a mother where I often feel less than glamorous, it gives me a lovely boost that carries me through the day. I was raised to value intellect and the power of thought (which is not a bad thing) but if my children can learn how to be bearers of words of affirmation of all kinds – what a blessing to this critical, hard world!

Let me be very clear. I don’t only focus on how my children look, which would very obviously be detrimental to their psyches. I admire all of their gifts and talents and often tell them how much I love them just because they are themselves. They don’t need to look a certain way, or be a certain way or do anything at all to be loved. They just are. I also tell them when they’re being complete pains and need to sort themselves out PRONTO BEFORE I HAVE TO COME DOWN THERE (!). But I won’t stop telling them they’re beautiful.

A word of advice

I have a friend – let’s call her Caroline. As long as I’ve known her, she hasn’t driven a car. I have no idea if she can’t drive, or if she just doesn’t like to, but I have got used to her husband, friends or family lifting her to functions and get-togethers. As second nature as driving is to me, I assume that there is a real and valid reason why she doesn’t drive. I have never offered her advice on how to drive or how I managed to learn to drive, or told her a story about another friend who learnt to drive at the age of 40. It’s none of my business really, and besides, we have more interesting things to talk about.

One thing I’ve learnt as a parent and birth worker, though, is that people (actually it’s mainly women) love to tell other women how to birth, feed and parent their babies. They assume that because something was easy for them, it should be easy for everyone, and indeed that everyone should make the same choices for their children because there is only one right choice.

I think I might have been the same once upon a time, until I worked with so many different families and realised that actually most people don’t want your advice. They have likely made the decision they made because it was the best decision at the time for their particular family, in their particular circumstances, given all that they knew and had learnt at that point.

Does that mean I never give advice? Well, of course not – I’m paid to guide families through pregnancy, labour, birth and the postpartum period. So sometimes I give a mother some ideas but never before asking her what she actually wants to achieve. Pushing breastfeeding or unmedicated birth on someone who has no interest in these things is selfish and would be more to do with my ego and the validation of my own worldview than a genuine attempt to reach another human being.

Do you know what’s more valuable than advice? Acts of service and gestures of kindness. Without ever asking, I have been assisted by more men than I can count (it’s always been men in my experience) with my children. Helping me to steer a trolley into a bay while I juggle a sleeping toddler in my arms and another child beside me. Opening the car door a little wider when I am battling to plug a child in. Letting me go first in the queue when they see my child is tired and near hysteria and I need to be as quick as I can. They haven’t told me a story about their own family, or moralised about my parenting; they have literally just stepped in to help, and brushed away my thanks.

So unless you are paying me for my advice,the way in which you birth, feed and parent your child is none of my business, and besides, we have more interesting things to talk about.