It was just after 7pm and I sat perched on the edge of my daughter’s bed.  Tinkerbell and her friends were involved in some sort of antics on the pages of a short chapter book I was reading aloud.  Chapter books are new to us – she’s just become interested in reading big books with not so many pictures and thinks it’s pretty awesome that I’ve been reading through this set with her.

I won’t pretend they are riveting literature.  Truth be told, my brain was already on other things while the rest of me was nattering on about fairies and Neverland.  In one of the stories, a character was focused on her wardrobe *eyeroll* and called one of her dresses ‘ugly.’

“What does ugly mean Mom?”

My mouth hung agape while I waited for my brain to catch up to this moment.

How was it that my daughter of nearly six years did not know what ugly meant?

I wasn’t sure how to answer her, knowing that whatever I told her would stick with her for the rest of her life.  Parenting is so permanent sometimes isn’t it?  How is it that I can I etch something so concrete into the mind of a human being in a mere instant?  If I was flippant or cruel that would stay with her.  If I said the wrong thing she could end up with my voice repeating in her mind in perpetuity every time she heard or read the word. Ugly. defines ugly as: Unpleasant or repulsive, esp. in appearance: “she thought she was ugly and fat”. 


Ok, I think I did better than that.

The Permanence of Parenting - What doe Ugly Mean?


“The fairy means the dress wasn’t as pretty as the other ones.  She didn’t think it was fancy enough to wear to an important party.”

I was hoping she wouldn’t realize you could describe people this way.

Bringing in context from the story helped me to focus and not blow things out of proportion.  Bedtime story questions have the ability to turn into big philosophical discussions.  You don’t want to know what happened when she asked me what a soul was.  Let’s just say a therapist may need to be involved at some point.


She knows what pretty is.  We never hold back with the word pretty, at least, I don’t think we do.  I tell her she’s pretty, or cute, every day.  It’s not a lie – the kid is beautiful.  I want her to know it.  But at the same time I don’t want her to be so concerned with what things look like.  Can we have both?  Can we have children secure in their skin, knowing they are beautiful and amazing creatures without them passing judgement on others?

I suppose I should just be proud we made it so long before she learned beauty has a counterpart.



  1. It’s hard. When our girl was little my husband never wanted to tell her that she was pretty because we wanted to highlight that she was also really smart and kind-hearted, etc. At eight, we haven’t had any problems with her thinking either she or other people are ugly, but I’m sure that sense of innocence won’t last for much longer. I’m hoping that if we stay conscious of this as mothers that we can help break the cycle of self-hatred that so many teenage girls go through.

    • I never thought to hold back on telling her she was pretty – she is, it’s just natural for me to say it so I do so with honesty. I wonder if it was the right thing to do. We also tell her she’s smart and confident and full of spunk. Because she is. I want her to know these things about herself because so often, growing up, I never knew these things. You know, really KNEW them.

  2. This is def. a hard one. We also tell our daughter she is beautiful all the time. And smart, etc. We decided to highlight her beauty to her because we want her to know her beauty and accept it. So the first time a boy says it to her, she is already confident enough to not get swpt up. 🙂 Loved your answer.

  3. Great explanation– and it is hard… we don’t want them to overly focus on being pretty, but we want them to feel pretty. UGLY isn’t the worst word she could have asked about… there is more yet to come!

  4. Since my kids are not quite old enough yet for me to ask these kind of questions I’m always interested in hearing how other’s before me handled these things. I think your answer was perfect and hopefully I can remember to explain it like that when the time comes for me.

  5. My parents intentionally didn’t tell me I was pretty and tried to focus on other things. I’m not sure that was a helpful thing with me. I think you have a great attitude towards dealing with this.

  6. I had a similar discussion with skinny. I had to explain that we play tennis because its fun, and not because we want to be skinny. Some times parenting really is PERMANENT. Scary scary.

    • I usually try to focus on health over appearance. We eat veggies to be healthy, not skinny etc. It’s tough to ‘be on guard’ all the time.

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