I watched my niece and nephew this weekend (4 and 6, respectively) while my sister-in-law took a class. We were driving down the road and the subject of camels came up, hoping to share a little trivia, I asked them if they knew what camel humps were made of. They suggested water (as most people assume) and I shared that they are actually made of fat.
My nephew was quiet for a minute then asked, “Does that mean camels are ugly?”
What a profound question! I’ve always wondered when societal prejudices/stereotypes start effecting how children look at the world and I guess the answer is before the age of 6…
I paused for a minute (while my mind was busy being blown!) and responded with this. “I don’t think being fat or skinny makes you beautiful. I think that one camel would think another camel looked strange if it didn’t have humps at all.” We left the discussion at that.
Hind sight is 20/20 of course but I really wish I hadn’t suggested that looking different made you ugly. I want my children to understand that beauty is a function of who you are, not how you look, but how do you explain that to your child when they throw something like that at you? With an adult I feel like we could have had a long discussion about societal conventions of beauty but with a kid you need to put it into a few sentences and how is that possible when you’re not expecting it?
Maybe the answer is the Socratic method… maybe if I were a perfect parent/aunt the conversation would have gone like this:
Nephew - “Does that make camels ugly?”
Me - “What do you think makes a camel beautiful?”
Nephew – “Its fur? Its long legs?”
Me – “What about bears? Is a black bear more beautiful than a brown bear or a polar bear?”
Nephew – “Polar bears need more fat to stay warm than other bears so maybe fat is prettier on them because they need it?”
Me- “What if a polar bear had 3 cubs instead of 2 and had to share some extra food and so they were skinnier than normal, would that make them uglier?”
Nephew – “No because they were taking care of their family.”
Me – “What do you think makes a human beautiful?”
Nephew – “Their hair/weight/eyes (fill-in-the-blank physical attribute).”
Me – “What about the way they act or how they treat their friends and family? Are they still beautiful if they are mean?”
And so the conversation goes… Maybe Socrates had the right idea, let them come to their own conclusions with just a little guidance in the questions. Maybe at the end my nephew would still think that fat humans are uglier humans than skinny ones, but maybe I could have changed his view of the world?
In the end I’m just glad I got to have that conversation before Marek was 6 years old, it reminded me how important it is to let him know everyday that he is beautiful and that I am beautiful, because we are ourselves and there is no one else out there like us.