I went through a phase of mentally kicking myself whenever I told my daughter she was beautiful.
Parenting rules change all the time and right now you’re supposed to tell girls that they’re strong, funny, smart, tough… anything but pretty. Because you don’t want to reinforce the notion that looks are paramount; that beauty will earn them love and give them worth. It makes sense but, like many theories, it works best in a book. Because kids don’t live in the filtered, cushioned worlds that we create for them. They live in the real, brutal world. They have eyes in their heads and bullies in their playgrounds. They know that their appearance affects their place in the pecking order. We can’t shield them from that.
And then there’s the fact that they are beautiful – kids – all of them. They have soft skin and little button noses. Of course, kids don’t see this in each other. At school your exquisite child is probably getting called four-eyes or freak face or something. When they come home, I say they need affirmations. I mean, if they can’t be a knock-out in the eyes of the most biased person on the planet, what chance have they got?
And yet... there’s an instinctive recoiling on the part of many parents, including myself, when it comes to children’s pageants or modelling – anything that puts their appearance to the test, opens it up to comparison and potentially monetises it.
But then, many kids love being a part of that stuff – they love dressing up, showing off, the prospect of fame. It’s fun and maybe there’s no harm in it?
“I was quite torn about my feelings,” says journalist Eleanor Black, who tracked the lead-up to last month’s New Zealand Super Kids and Teens Model Competition. “If it’s fun for kids, then OK, but do they understand what they’re doing, really? And are they just trying to please their parents?”
I ask Eleanor about the criticism often levelled at these things: that the children are sexualised. She pauses. “One kid crunked [a pelvic thrusting dance move] and wore a crop top in every segment,” she admits. “That was a little uncomfortable, but the whole thing wasn’t sexy. It was cheeseball and weird but it wasn’t upsetting.
“The parents that I spoke to were good parents,” says Eleanor. “They didn’t have questionable motives.”
But as a parent, would she involve her own kids in this kind of thing? “No,” she says. “I wouldn’t want that kind of attention for my children.”