On Approaching a Toddler
Parenthood is a curious thing. As Charlotte grew more and more pregnant, a bizarre thing happened: people felt compelled to share their observations on her physical appearance, almost constantly.
"My, aren't you big?!", they'd say. "When are you due? Must be soon!"
When it comes to compliments, I respond dreadfully. I'm not used to receiving them from total strangers, so when it happens (now that I have a beard), I become incredibly self-aware, and almost embarrassed by my own existence. I forget the things you're supposed to do, like being grateful, and I start searching for ways to return the compliment from whence it came. "Err, thanks. You too?" (this was once a genuine response to a woman telling me I had a nice beard), "Oh, I like your...bag?".
Suffice it to say, strangers complimenting me makes me feel uneasy. I find them to be an incredibly intimate thing. When the people I love and trust compliment be, it becomes one with my stride. I say things like "thank you, they're just normal Levis" and, "yeah, I'm really happy with the way it looks right now". But when a stranger compliments me, I withdraw, and become uneasy.
The reason I mention this is because I've witnessed this behaviour in Tabitha, too. We'll be in a shop, and when we're in the queue, someone's desperate to make some small talk and they'll say to her "oh, aren't you beautiful?! Your rosy cheeks!" and she completely changes, just as I do. She hides behind me - she withdraws, and I don't know how I'm supposed to handle it, or even if I am. It obviously makes her uncomfortable, but some people mistake this shyness for something else, and carry on. "Oh, your beautiful blue eyes and blonde hair! I wonder where you get that from", and I just want to grab the person by the head and scream at them to read the situation: "she's not happy with what you're saying. She's fucking hiding from you. You are objectifying my wonderful daughter, making her aware of physical traits that she'll come to hate me for, and giving her a complex that she'll take with her for the rest of her life".
When I was five, I got my first school picture taken, and the first thing my aunt said was "oh, aren't your ears weird?! They're not straight, they're not level, they're different sizes!". Ask anyone who knows me - the reason I pierced and stretched them beyond recognition is to take control of this thing that I hate about my appearance, and the thought of someone doing that to Tabitha at three years old makes me furious.
I've decided that this is a systemic problem - when you have a child, people will come up to you and just start talking to you. That's not something I can stop. So, I'm going to try to teach Tabitha some things to say in response to these uninvited compliments, and hopefully (I mean she's three) teach her to value the things about her as a person, rather than the things about her as an object. The sorts of phrases I have planned are:
"Oh, aren't you beautiful?!"
I love reading books.
"Look at your rosy cheeks"
I can play the harmonica! she can't, but she tries and it's brilliant
And can I please request that when you're greeting a child for the first time, don't dive into their physical traits. If you can't show an interest in something about them as an individual, just keep your mouth shut until you can. I know you think you're being nice, but you might just be doing more harm than good. And if you can't keep your opinion to yourself, just talk to the adult with the child and tell them you think they have a great kid.