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Gadgets & Home Improvement

Don't focus on how kids look

Experts say it could lead to an over-reliance on appearance and cause sibling rivalry
The Straits Times - July 6, 2014
By: Kezia Toh
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Don't focus on how kids look Quantity surveyor Sae Cheng, with her children (from left) Thea, Jacob, six, and Jerome. -- PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

When strangers coo compliments over the permed hairdos and pedicures of five-year-old Angeline and seven-yearold Christine, the sisters smile shyly and say "thank you".

Their mother, insurance agent Dorothy Teo, has taught the girls to accept compliments regarding their looks.

"They should acknowledge the compliment and be gracious," says Ms Teo, 39.

The girls had asked for the soft waves - reminiscent of the curly coiffures of Korean actresses - and she agreed, buying kid-friendly perming solution for her hairdresser to use.

"I have no qualms about it because there is nothing wrong with them perming their hair. A child can appreciate beauty," she explains.

Unlike her, other parents may be caught in a quandary when their children are praised for their good looks.

They say that while basking in the attention may encourage a child's vanity, downplaying the admiring comments could dampen a child's self-esteem.

Oil trader Edwin Tay, 39, for example, believes that praise builds up his daughter Vera's confidence.

He tells eight-year-old Vera daily that she is a princess and is very pretty and cute.

He says: "Compliments contribute to how children view themselves, which builds up their self-esteem."

It is also an early eye-opener to a "fact of life" that looks are important in the real world, he adds.

He also praises his two sons, aged four and six, on their appearance - with compliments such as "the shirt looks good on you". The encouraging words acknowledge the boys' effort to make themselves presentable, he explains.

Experts agree with him on this last point, saying that appearance-oriented praise should focus on a child's effort, rather than solely on how the child looks.

For example, praise a child on the effort he took to put on a nice shirt and look tidy, suggests Ms Fiona Walker, principal of schools at Julia Gabriel Education.

Compliments such as "what a handsome boy" or "what a pretty girl" also usually flatter the parents more than the child, she adds.

Indeed, this seems to be the case for student Claire Yang, 19, who made the news recently for winning the Angus Ross Prize - given to the best-performing non-British candidate at the A-level English literature examination - and also drew considerable attention for her good looks.

"The compliments started when I was in secondary school. People would say I have sharp features and big eyes and ask if I was of mixed blood," she says.

She usually says "thank you" for the compliments, but quips that her mother, life skills trainer Christina Teo, 53, laps up the praise. Says Claire: "My mother might brag about these compliments with relish and say that I get them because I take after her."

But such a focus on appearance could set the scene for trouble, says psychologist Daniel Koh of Insights Mind Centre.

He says: "It instils an over-reliance on appearance, such that if the child loses his looks later on, it could lead to him having nothing else to fall back on."

Appearance-based praise could also breed unhealthy competition among siblings and/or peers on who looks better, he adds.

Ms Loo Leng Leng, 39, who is selfemployed, says her four-year-old son Ziv usually gets compliments in public places such as supermarkets.

She tries to divert the compliments with statements such as "it is not good to be handsome, but better to be well-behaved".

She does this out of consideration for her seven-year-old daughter Reanne.

"I don't want to encourage sibling rivalry because I find that when Ziv gets compliments, Reanne sometimes moves closer to me, almost telling me with her body language - what about me?" she says.

The lavishing of praise on one child may also affect other children, as in the case of housewife Sim Soo Lin's household.

Her three-year-old son, Keith, regularly receives compliments for being cute and chubby, says the 37-year-old.

But she is concerned about the effect on her seven-year-old daughter, Kate, who is starting to be conscious about her appearance: worrying over weekend outfit choices and the loss of two milk teeth, resulting in a gap in her smile.

To address potential sibling rivalry, experts suggest that parents reinforce individual differences.

When one child receives a compliment on his appearance and another child does not, the parent could say, "each of my children have their own qualities and I am proud of them", suggests Mr Koh of Insights Mind Centre.

Parents should also show interest and give encouragement in other aspects of a child's life, such as their friendships, character and hobbies.

Ms Patricia Koh, manager of Touch Character Development, says: "To a child, what a parent focuses on is an indication of what is deemed important."

When a parent shows interest in other areas of a child's life - apart from looks - it sends the message that those aspects are valuable and important.

Ultimately, when the compliments come flooding in, the best thing to do is to not dwell on it, says quantity surveyor Sae Cheng, 41.

Her eight-year-old son Jerome gets admiring glances thanks to his large eyes and long eyelashes, she says.

"I don't encourage or discourage these comments, because these are just passing remarks," says Ms Cheng, adding that she understands the effect of appearance-based comments - as a child, her grandmother used to call her short and ugly.

"I felt like an ugly duckling when I was growing up," she says.

So Ms Cheng deliberately praises her 12-year-old daughter Thea - but for qualities apart from the superficial.

To her child, whose hobby is ballroom dancing, she says, "well done, you remembered all the steps", rather than "you looked really good on stage".

She adds: "My goal is for my children not to be misled that looks are the most important thing in life.

"After all, we are not beauty kings or queens."

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