A 4-year-old's idea of beautiful

What happens when your own child never feels beautiful and obsessively seeks approval for perfection?




One mother asks:

Help! My 4 1/2 year old daughter is making our morning routine a challenge due to her desire to look a certain way. She typically will only wear dresses, and she has quite a few to choose from. But each dress has something about it that she doesn't like, so she will sulk until she figures out the "perfect" one to wear. In addition, when she does finally find something that will suit her fancy, she worries about what the kids in her class are going to say about it. "What if so-and-so says she doesn't like it?" So that's challenge #1.

Even worse than what she will wear, is how she is going to wear her hair. Like I said, she is FOUR. I didn't expect this until much, much later. I will braid her hair, ponytail it, put it in buns, add barrettes or ribbons. Nothing is to her satisfaction. Once in a while, she will deem her hair is "perfect" but according to her, I cannot repeat a hairstyle the next day. Basically, what she wants is a different, "beautiful" hairstyle every day. (Today she told me that she wanted her hair to be in a "Mexico style". Challenging is not the right word.) So, my dilemma is two-fold:

Firstly, how do you instill in your children that beauty is on the inside? I tell her over and over again that it isn't about the dresses she wears or how her hair looks or what her friends say, but it does hurt me to see her weeping after another failed hairstyle attempt, telling me she doesn't look beautiful. I want her to feel good about herself, of course, but I don't want her to be vain or discount all of her other wonderful talents and qualities just because of a bad hair day. It honestly makes me sad, and a little worried, that she doesn't feel beautiful unless she looks a specific way.

Secondly, how can I prevent the escalation that inevitable occurs, going from her asking me to help her pick out a dress to a full-on screaming match with her stomping her feet, crying and yelling at me, while I yell at her that we're going to be late for school? Every morning. I feel badly for our neighbors and I dread getting her dressed and brushing her hair because I know it will lead to an outburst. I don't want to give in to her demands, but getting out of the house on time is imperative and a temper tantrum adds countless minutes to an already tight schedule.

Looking for creative solutions from anybody who's experienced anything similar.



Save time in the morning, choose your outfit the night before:

“I don't know if this will help but when my daughter started Pre-k and started to have opinion about clothes we put the clothes in outfits so they could be chosen the night before and laid on the chair ready for the next morning. No substitutions. Luckily she only cares about her hair bands ("crown") and no hair-dos because I can barely do a braid.”

“This doesn't address a lot except for the morning routine-as a working mom to 3- two girls-I instituted a pick out your clothes the night before. Both girls would lay out what they were going to wear down to socks, undies , shoes the night before. The youngest would lay it out on the carpet like a body. No costume changes in the morning. I do think the other stuff might be a phase, but might be interesting to hear some of the girl to girl dialogue in the classroom to be sure she is feeling good about herself at school.”

“We have a similar situation with our 4.5 year old but not as extreme (she doesn't care as much about her hair). I am just hoping that she grows out of it. Indeed, she has stopped wanting to wear princess dresses to school (which we didn't allow). One thing that's helped (and you may have tried this) is to have a rule that she picks out her clothes the night before. Sometimes she tries to change her mind, but usually she sticks with the original plan. As for her extreme worry about what other people think…it may be a good idea to ask her teacher if this is going on with other girls in the class and to get advice about how to deal with it. We have also been trying to say things like "you look so SMART in that dress", princesses have to be super strong , etc.”

Have a Consequence if minds get changed:

“Something that has helped for us was deciding on clothes for the next day in the evening the day before. Making a rule that we pick the clothes and cannot change our mind otherwise there is a consequence was really helpful.

Get dressed first thing and be on the lookout for classroom cliques:

“I can't speak from experience on the appearance issues (for better or worse, my son could care less what he wears), but to the extent these are struggles about transition, what worked for us to avoid the inevitable getting dressed struggles (he would just refuse to do it, we'd be late, I'd yell, etc etc) was:

1) picking out clothes the night before

2) getting him dressed the very first thing when he woke up, while he was still sleepy and didn't have the energy to argue.

Not sure either of those would help all that much, but it might be worth just shaking up the routine.

Now, he's on a kick where he wants to "surprise me" by getting dressed before he comes out of his room. I never know what he'll be wearing (or if it will be on backwards) but don't honestly care much. I'm just happy not to be arguing. It's been a few weeks, and I encourage it by saying (kindly so he knows I'm joking) things like "I'm sure you're too little to get your own self dressed and surprise me in the morning tomorrow", and then acting all surprised when he does it -- it's amazing how well reverse psychology works. (Ditto with eating vegetables, but that's another story...)

It sounds like she's asking you for help, but then not happy with anything you do -- I wonder if she had a different focus -- surprising you, tricking you, something? if that might help. Or maybe that's just my kid's psychology...

In terms of escalation, a book I found helpful was The Explosive Child. It had good strategies, and was just generally comforting to feel like I wasn't alone with these kinds of struggles and escalation.

Finally, something one of the other posters said re: cliques at this age really hit home. I hear so much worry from my son about who's friends with who, who's whose best friend, whether people like him... The idea that your daughter is worried people won't think she's beautiful just makes me sad. I'm not sure if this is an issue with her class specifically, or just the age. But I wonder if it might be worth bringing up the issue with her teacher, just to get her take on it.”

Put yourself in your kid’s perspective:

“You should check out Naomi Aldort on the internet.. and her book Raising our children raising ourselves...it might help some way in the long run...she talks a lot about when your child's crying/frustrated how to say " I see you are frustrated...finding the right clothes can be really hard sometimes can't it?" and starting from that sort of perspective...if you read her whole idea its
transforming and it works like magic.”

Accept your little girl for who she is:

“I have the same daughter (3.5)!! Although she doesn't say other kids at school will say anything...I see her checking other girls out... she looks at what they are wearing intently especially at dance class. She is always taken by the girls dressed really pretty. I think she just has that sense of aesthetic. I like that because I like style and having a sense of taste. I am not fancy...more of a 'hipster' style...my daughter is shocked if I look dressed up...but I figure it’s a good thing. She likes to look nice...that's good!! She takes interest in colors and fabics that FEEL GOOD to her. That's her listening to her own inner voice that makes her who she is!

I think if you allow your daughter to guide herself she won't be as fussy. Accept her choices FULLY...give her time to pick things out and if she wants to wear the same thing every day WHO CARES!! She will outgrow it all. If you give her that space, she will release the resistance because it is just a resistance to your feelings of control, like you need to control her (guide her) but she is so young and still has pure inner wisdom. We think like adults in an adult perspective...she doesn't have all the context of feminism on her mind...she is just following what feels good... maybe let her lead and see where she takes it...I bet she will become more and more unique and less and less like a follower.”

Pick Your Battles and follow some ground rules:

“I found 4 year olds to be tough to navigate on this topic. My daughter's pre-K class felt a little bit like high school -- with cliques, and social status attributed to clothes. It almost broke my heart when my then 4 year old came home one day and declared she would not be wearing jeans anymore because another classmate told her girls don't look pretty in jeans! And I really don't think it was weird values being pushed down by parents as most parents were lovely, non-judgmental people whom we are still close to.

So a few thoughts:
1. Pick your battles. I gave in on the jeans point and let her just wear leggings and dresses.
2. Let her pick out her own clothes but ensure that she picks it the night before.
3. Keep up the message you are giving her about beauty being on the inside. Someday it will sink in.
4. 4 year olds are just separating from their parents and finding their way in the world. This "early adolescence" is traumatic but necessary. Each kid manifests it differently.
5. Your hair problem is really difficult. Sorry can't help there.
6. They really do outgrow it. My daughter now 6 is so much more self-confident and says things like "I don't care if the other girls like princesses, I really like superheroes."
7. Make sure no one else (grandma, nanny) is filling her head with weird ideas of beauty.


 Get an idea of what is going on at school:

“The grass is always greener, isn't it? My 9-year-old daughter has NEVER cared what she looks like, and while that's great in many ways (and unsurprising - I'm fashion illiterate myself), it's sometimes made it mighty hard to convince her to brush her hair or wash her face or change her toothpaste-smeared shirt or bottom-ripped-out pants. "Why? No one cares what I look like, Mom. NO ONE CARES!" I hope that's true, but even if it is, gosh darn it, she is going to brush her hair! So while it's the opposite manifestation of your experience, the problem is similar -- how to arrive at a healthy balance about how our girls think about their appearances.
A few things I might ask in your case: Does she go to a school where other kids are placing a high priority on looks? If she's worried what so-and-so says, you might ask her why this particular person's opinion is so valuable. Has she actually heard that person remark on some other kid's appearance, or does she just want to impress that person in whatever way? You might also ask your daughter if SHE ever thinks less of someone because of how they look. If she says no, that might help her see that she's worrying unnecessarily.
And you can always tell her that there's at least one girl in Park Slope who absolutely, emphatically believes that no one cares. :)”

“One more thought-is there a "mean little girl" situation at her preschool contributing to this? I know that is present at my son's school & it might be part of what's going on. Like another girl putting her down or competition to look pretty. Might be worth a check in w the teacher.”

Examine transitions and control:

“I wonder if what is going on with your daughter might be less about the actual clothes and style and more about control and/or transitions? There was a thread about getting out of the house a few months ago. Maybe you can find something tangible and useful there.”

Indulge the inner diva when it comes to her hair:
“Maybe investing in some hair "bling" might help. I.e. sparkly clips, ties, headbands might appease her especially if she is simply admiring some classmates that might routinely have "special" hair ( french braids etc). About all I could ever manage on my daughters fine hair was a braid!”

Book Recommendation:

“I just bought a book called Little Girls Can Be Mean that gets into how to talk to daughters about girl meanness. Just started it but it looks good so far.”

Emphasize inner beauty and find similarities in others:

“My 4 1/2 year old daughter seems to have some similarities with yours...she doesn't feel pretty unless her hair is a certain way or she is wearing just the right dress.

However, it has mellowed somewhat recently. I think maybe it's because it has been so cold and she has to wear so many layers just to be warm. She hates it if anyone calls her cute though (she only likes to be pretty or beautiful) and she is small for her age so she is often referred to as cute. I recently helped her find her inner cuteness by watching a video of her 89 year old great aunt tap dancing. When she saw the video of this old lady (who is under 5 feet tall) tap dancing she thought that the lady was very cute! I said, "you have the same genes as this lady and if she's cute now you are likely to always be cute too."

"My daughter understood what I meant. We also talk a lot about the importance of inner beauty...like how Snow White has both inner and outer beauty but that her stepmother only has outer beauty and that inner beauty is so much more important that outer beauty..."

Give limited options when it comes to hair:

“As far as hair goes, I have limited abilities so I say, "do you want two braids, 1 braid or a headband?" That seems to do the trick (though sometimes she says she just wants to wear it long with nothing in it!)...Of course, each of our little princesses has a different personality...”

Use a Responsibility Chart:

“(My son) went through/is going through a variation of what you describe with your daughter. The beauty issues are not the same of course, because of our crazy society (my daughter is 21 mos so it won’t be long before i'm dealing w that). But he would insist on dressing in very specific "sports clothes" every day, and if the t shirt he wanted wasnt clean he would scream at me. Only certain sneakers. etc. Then he went through a legwarmers phase where he would wear at least 2 pair every day. Fine, except he would demand help to get them adjusted just right & tantrum until somebody helped him. Total nightmare, late getting out of the house etc.

So we got this magnetic responsibility chart recommended by a friend. One of the responsibilities you can choose is "getting dressed" & when we explained the chart to him we told him this means getting dressed without fussing. He can choose any clothes as long as they’re appropriate for weather, but no tantrums about clothes. We were positive about it like "you’re a big boy, we know you can do it." Lots of praise. & when he gets a certain # of magnets or higher for the week, he gets a small toy or book as a reward. I bet you could do something similar for hairstyle, like give 2 choices & she picks 1 then sticks with it no fuss. Another thing that's been helpful is he has to get dressed before breakfast & play, which incentivizes him.”


Other related articles on Park Slope Parents:

Is your kid in control of their own body?

The Princess Predicament

How young is too young for make up?