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As a mom, there are a few things (many things) that concern me about the messages my kids will get from the world outside of our home.  That they need to look a certain way, dress a certain way, act a certain way, have certain things, or even think a certain way.  I for one completely agree with the mother I heard interviewed on The Wellness Family podcast yesterday:  sometimes I would like to stand like a shield between them and the world.

But while we may be able to choose what forms of media we welcome into our home (like not having cable, newspapers, magazines, or music videos) – they are still active participants in the world they live in.   They see movies, spend time with friends, and simply don’t live in a bubble.  And to be honest, I completely disagree with trying to fabricate an artificial ‘bubble world’ for our children to live in.  This is the world they have inherited;  how can we help them navigate through it?

This all was brought to test this week.  I cringed (quite significantly, albeit inwardly) when I saw the book Audra brought home two days ago from the school library: The Princess Handbook: Your Top Secret Guide to becoming a True Princess.

(With a part of me truly disgusted, I wondered yet again how I came to have such a ‘girly-girl’ daughter – a great irony for me as a self-professed tom boy growing up.  But then I simply reminded myself of all of her other wonderful strengths: she may love all things pretty, but she is also brave, smart, athletic and strong – and just like that, I’m back at peace.  No need to have a fit over a book.)

While I could have shown my initial gut reaction, I chose to sit back on this one and observe.  I had no problem letting her dress up for school yesterday – and I had to admit the ‘brush your hair 100 times’ suggestion made getting cleaned up for school that much easier.  However, after years of consciously teaching our children all of the ways they are wonderful both inside and out, I considered this book to be a test.  (and in my eyes, a very important one to pass.)

As parents, I see our job as being that of nurturing our children’s inner world – their self esteem, confidence and courage – so that they can be strong, resourceful human beings regardless of the junk (and fake images) that may pass as newsworthy in the world at large.

Concerns about body image certainly fall into this category.  (with body image defined as  being how you feel about how you look.)  I will admit that having a daughter brings with it unique concerns.  Although I know that boys have issues with this too, perhaps knowing the insecurities I had as an adolescent girl, I have long wondered how to best parent our children through this – especially Audra.

How can we circumvent the material world of unrealistic beauty expectations and unhealthy body images?  With it starting in toddlerhood with the need to navigate the childhood ‘princess’ stages where Disney reigns supreme, how can we minimize all of that programming to help her grow into a strong, confident teenager and woman?

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And as so often seems to be the case, most answers that occur to me point towards the  importance of who we are being as role models.

How do we speak in our home to our kids, about their traits, their body, their health, their strengths, or their challenges?  How do we speak about ourselves?  What is our own body image?  And ultimately – what kind of role model are we being?

Here is my ironic admission:  in my unabashed motherly bias, I find my daughter to be one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever seen.  And in her short 8 years, she has certainly heard her share of exclamations over how ‘cute’ she is, or how ‘beautiful’ she is.   And many of those come frequently from my own mouth.

However, we have made a concerted effort to teach our children consistently about inner beauty.  About being smart, kind, strong, courageous, thoughtful, creative.  About following their own inner guidance, trusting themselves, and standing up for what they believe.  So in this spirit, I am consciously aware of praising our children in ‘package deals’.  Beautiful and smart.  Pretty and kind.  Cute and strong.  Wonderful on both the inside and outside.  For me, it is simply the truth.

We try to focus on what they can do, and who they are being.  What new things they learned today, what challenges they overcame, what ways they helped other people.  How they are strong, healthy, fast, brave and athletic.  How they are smart, creative, thoughtful and interesting.

So while I feel a more in-depth conversation may be in order about what Audra is learning from this  book, at least part of my answer may have been found in her bedtime conversation with me last night.

As is our bedtime routine, every night I ask Ethan and Audra three questions:  What they did well, what they are grateful for, and what was their favourite part of the day.  She paused for a moment when I asked her what she was grateful for, then answered: “I’m grateful for being pretty…. and kind and smart and strong.”

And those are answers that I can certainly agree with.

(If you’re looking for some great listening material, check out www.thewellnesscouch.com  – a group of podcasts out of Australia that I was introduced to by a friend and colleague, and who happens to be one of the founders.  I have to say, it’s pretty fun to see friends who are making lots of waves in the world.)