Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: I'm looking for some advice on how to respond to my 5-year-old niece's obsession with being pretty. She refuses to wear anything other than dresses (a skirt and top are not the same and are not pretty enough), her hair must be combed and adorned with clips or ribbons and she must wear several pieces of jewelry - at all times. She will sob hysterically if any of the above is not perfect in her eyes.
I realize this may sound overly dramatic, but I've seen it happen and her reaction floored me. She was inconsolable for several minutes and finally ended up pulling a dress from the dirty clothes hamper because nothing else was available. And this was to go to the park on a weekend to play.
I know she's getting these ideas from her father's mother and sister; they are both very much like this and are constantly buying her clothes and jewelry and praising her looks. I understand there are two drastically different family dynamics here that are part of the problem. My sister and her husband seem to be on opposite sides most of the time, which is hard for me to watch. My concern is for my niece and her well-being, especially as she gets older.
What can I say to a 5-year-old whose only question when I see her is, "Do I look pretty?" I want her to understand beauty is a state of mind, not a state of body.
Answer: I'll concede this kind of pretty preoccupation is a bummer, but I can't share your level of distress. It's not unusual for kids that age to put on three outfits in one day to get it just right, or to fixate on a certain look or article of clothing, or to cry as if their world has collapsed when something stands in the way of their single-minded pursuit. This is true even without the warping influence of ancestral beauty queens. Your niece's age is a big moment for self-awareness with kids, and clothes are one of the most accessible forms of expression for them.
Also, though the princess brigade can expect a low barrier to entry into the imagination of the smallest children, over time, her mother will be a much more present and, therefore, just by the level of exposure, more powerful influence.
Instead of grabbing a handful of taffeta and joining the tug-of-war, please just be a loving, grounded, inner-focused fixture in this child's life. Do activities with her that require her to think or persevere or be creative. Praise her when she's kind, resourceful, tough, whatever traits you value most and believe will serve her best. That's what her aunt and grandmother are doing, as you're all entitled to do.
A quick primer on ways to encourage inner vs. outer motivation in children is the first chapter of Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which discusses the research of psychologist Carol Dweck. For a more thorough look, read Dweck's book, Mindset, or just read up on developmental norms for 5-year-olds to help keep things in perspective.
Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.