In the hopes of avoiding any early morning meltdowns over clothing choices, we had our 3 year old pick out her dress the night before. It's white with pink, blue and polka-dotted rain drops all over. A pretty dress for a pretty little girl. She went to bed that night happy with her decision, while I was hopeful that it was enough to help us through the morning routine that has been such a challenge for her lately.
When I went in her room the next morning she was already wide awake; singing and talking to herself. I sat down on the floor, engaging her in chatter about the day and waiting for signs that she was ready to turn against me. We've learned to keep things moving and use distraction to try to preoccupy her mind and avoid meltdowns. Smoke and mirrors for our toddler, basically. When I sensed things were about to turn south I brought up the dress on the hanger, dangling from a dresser knob, patiently waiting for her to put it on. Once she remembered the item, she eagerly got up and beckoned me to help her with it.
After a failed attempt to put it on feet first (the neck is too small to fit around her waist) she had her first meltdown of the day. I tried soothing her with words, but in the end it took silence and time for her to give it another try. This time we tried the head first approach, which worked, but then she got upset about that and broke down again. I tried calming her once more, this time pointing out how pretty the dress looked on her and asking if she'd like to look in the mirror to see for herself. While she didn't bite at that, she did change her tune when I brought up the choice of what socks should complete the outfit. Socks are on, sunscreen is applied, and we are ready to move on. As we walk into the bathroom to brush her teeth, I hear something I was not prepared for:
"Daddy, I want makeup so I can look pretty."
I instantly recoil at what has just been thrown at me, then my mind races to determine where our toddler got this idea. Who told our child that in order to look pretty she needed lipstick, blush and mascara? Was it one of her friends at daycare who maybe has an older sister that said this in passing? Did one of the cartoon princesses she adores take a trip to beauty school in an episode she watched? Or was it in an article from one of the Toddler Cosmopolitan magazines that I see lying about in her room. I've been meaning to cancel that subscription, and perhaps this was a sign to do so. Then I remembered: my wife let her put on makeup to calm her down and give her something to do while they were both getting ready for a recent weekend getaway. I doubt my wife actually said something this absurd to our child, but now it appears the seed has been planted and we needed to do something about it.
I stalled for time while I thought up my response, wondering what the right thing was to say to a 3 year old girl about what qualifies as 'pretty.' As a parent, I thought this conversation would come much later in her life and that maybe I'd be more prepared for it. But that's the thing, parenthood can throw lots of things your way when you're not ready for them, and it's up to you to sort them out and make the best of the situation. On top of that, I'm a guy. I grew up being concerned about action figures, cartoons and video games. I could not have cared less about how I looked as long as I was comfortable. Now, as the father of a girl, I'm in the process of being thrown into a world I know very little about. I'm grateful I have my wife to help me through these moments, but I also want to take an active role in my daughter's life no matter what it involves. So while I will absolutely learn about issues that young girls face when the time comes, for now I want my child to be a child. I'm all for her having influence on the clothes she wears and the style of her hair, but that's about it. I want the main focus to be on who she wants to be as an individual, rather than how she looks. Or, for at least as long as that's possible.
Eventually I find my words and say, "Baby, you don't need makeup to look pretty. You're pretty already and I love you." If this was a TV sitcom the music would get all serious for a second, my child would stop and think about what I had just said and then eventually agree with me. We'd share a hug, a smile, then one of us would say something witty and the audience would laugh and applaud as we exited stage left. Unfortunately this is real life, and my child responded with a louder and more stern demand for her face to be painted. After some more back and forth I eventually had to lay down the law: "Olivia, you're 3 years old and you don't need makeup." She wailed, went off to a corner to pout and cursed my name as I took this new meltdown as a chance to finish getting ready myself and let her cool off.
Finally it was time to go to daycare, and somehow I managed to convince her to get her shoes on and head for the door. But right before we leave she stops and says she wants to look at herself in the mirror. I follow close behind and watch as she admires her dress and hair in the mirror, eyes full of stars and a huge grin on her face. I knelt down beside her, gave her a big hug and said, "I know you wanted to wear the makeup to look pretty, but you're pretty even without it. See?" She smiles again, I give her a huge hug and hold out my hand to lead her off to school for the day. As we walked down the street, hand in hand, I thought about how both wonderful and challenging life as a parent can be. As much as I don't want my child getting older and facing the harsh realities that await her, I will do everything I can to be there for her when things get tough. I love her and think that she's pretty and beautiful no matter what clothes she wears or what she puts on her face. Although if I had my way, she'd walk out of the house dressed like this for as long as possible. Pretty, indeed.