Greeting Girls at the Preschool Door

Thursday, November 2, 2017

SUSAN H. SHAPIRO, Former Director
Dillon Child Study Center, St. Joseph's College

Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to
another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in
the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in
insecurity, and ended in disillusion.
                                                 —
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing
herself up a little—if only out of politeness. And then, you never know,
maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny. And it’s best to be
as pretty as possible for destiny.

                                                             — Coco Chanel

My favorite part of being director of a small urban preschool is standing in the lobby each morning and greeting the children and their families on their way to class. I make sure to greet each child by name and make certain that I have a quick conversation with each one. Typically I find myself making a comment such as:

“Good morning, Stevie. Did your Grandpa come in today to help walk you to your classroom? You seem very excited. What fun!”

“Good morning, Charles. It’s so good to see you this morning with such a bounce in your step.”

“Good morning, Tanya. What a great pink dress you are wearing today.” “Good morning, Sarah. Those pigtails are awfully cute.”

I consider myself a feminist. I have written frequently on gender differences in preschools. I think a lot about gender and children and try to be aware of the way I treat boys compared with girls. However, upon further examination, I found my interactions with the girls to be remarkably different from the way I greet boys.

More often than not I found myself commenting on a girl’s appearance while remarking more on a boy’s attitude. This disturbed me, because I want every girl to think of herself as more than a pretty face or someone who wears a lovely dress; I want her to see the value in herself as an intelligent, lively young person.

Especially in a diverse community, limited ideals about beauty (besides being unrealistic) can be devastating. Not every child can be thin and blond like Princess Elsa. Not every little girl can have two healthy legs that allow her to wear little sparkly shoes. Not every child has flowing hair or blue eyes. Beauty discriminates and sets many girls up for failure.

I decided to try consciously to work on remedying the situation by being careful about not commenting on a little girl’s appearance. Instead, I made sure to comment on the child’s attitude.

For example, I said:
“Good morning, Tracy. Wow! You seem full of beans and ready for school this morning. I love that energy!”

“Hello, Christine. It looks like you can’t wait to get to class to see your friends this morning. How wonderful!”

At first, after these kinds of comments, the girls bounced in as happy as they could be. But as I worked on creating greetings that no longer included a compliment on their appearance, a funny thing happened—the girls began to stop and ask me to remark on their dresses or shoes. They would hold out their dress for a good word or point to their ponytails waiting for the praise.

Could it be that by the age of 3 or 4 the girls had already seen the value of being pretty or cute? Did the girls really seek positive reinforcement with regard to their looks at such a young age? Where did these expectations come from? Did family and friends contribute to these expectations?

I think becoming aware of the compliments we give little girls is something we all must consider. Parents and grandparents, as well as teachers, need to be more aware of the remarks that they make to girls and boys. Perhaps we as a society need to give greater consideration to the consequences they may have.

Women often compliment each other on physical attributes. Praise for a beautiful blouse or the terrific color of a coat can start a woman’s day off with a smile. But is this a trait we really want to pass on to our little girls? The problem with these compliments is they base a child’s self-worth on her outside appearance.

No one can dampen the excitement of a child being escorted to school by a grandparent. Nothing can diminish a child’s love of nature, or enthusiasm for learning. These are feelings and traits that are innate and enduring. On the other hand, beauty fades; ponytails and fluffy dresses are generally worn when a girl is young. We all know what damage can be done when a girl desperately clings to unattainable ideals during adolescence, a time when self-esteem is so closely tied to physical attributes.

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So, I began to wrestle with the issue: How to I compliment girls on more than their looks? How do I help them seek the validity they so desperately need in a way that does not reinforce a reliance on looks and “cuteness”? How do I boost girls’ self-esteem without basing my comments on their physical appearance?

It’s all well and good to think about these ideals but quite another thing to put them into effect without alienating little girls. I wanted them to feel valued and important and I wanted to make sure I kept reinforcing values that would be based on more than looks. My little morning greeting had to be more than a quick one-liner meant to send them on their way to class with a smile. I needed to really be conscious and to think of the ramifications of that interaction in the hall.

I realized that my little morning interaction wasn’t going to change a girl’s need for positive reinforcement based on her physical appearance. My strategy would be to acknowledge the outward appearance while moving the conversation forward and reinforcing the child’s traits, not just her looks. As most issues with young children, it would be a balancing act. I could use the outward appearance as a gateway to help girls understand they are more important than the dress they are wearing; that who they are and what they feel are as important as the sparkly shoes.

That Monday I came to school prepared. Three-year-old Kelly came in twirling in circles and smiling. Obviously she was very excited by her new pink frilly dress.

“Good morning, Kelly. I love to see how happy you are to come to school. You make me want to dance, too.”

Kelly stopped and gave her dress a twirl, holding it out so I could see it.

“Oh, I see you have a new dress. I bet that dress will help you twirl today. I know you twirl when you are happy. You are the best twirler around. I’m feeling pretty happy today, too. Can I twirl with you?”

She smiled, and we began to twirl together as she laughed.

Maybe I didn’t change the world or change society’s standards of beauty, but hopefully Kelly had begun to see beyond the frills of her dress and to appreciate who she is inside: a child of great worth—who happens to love to twirl.

Susan H. Shapiro, Ed.D. is the Former Director of the Dillon Child Study Center, the campus laboratory preschool at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn.

This article first appeared in the 2017 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of the Review free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.

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