Opinion

When your toddler becomes self-conscious

Writer Tara-Michelle Ziniuk thinks her toddler daughter has started to become self-conscious.

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Anna sings a song on the bus. Photo: Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

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We’re sitting on the bus; Anna is wearing her signature combination of plaid and polka-dots, with a silver ski-vest over top. Her shoes are obviously too big, and it’s not that we don’t have shoes that fit her, but she insists on wearing “big huge running shoes” because she is “big and huge and has to run.” It’s not ideal for her feet, but it gets us out of the door. She is singing “chim-chimeny, chim-chimeny, chim-chim, cher-ooo…,” as she has recently seen Mary Poppins for the first time. Her hair has just grown long enough to put into pigtails, and she’s since been told she looks like Michelle Tanner from Full House (I prefer saying this to “an Olsen twin,” which makes me picture the Mary-Kate and Ashley of today.)

“Mama,” she begins, her tiny eyebrows in a scowl, “why are people looking at me?” I tell her they’re looking at her because she is cute. “No, Mama, they’re looking at me like I’m funny.” The thing is: she is funny. Her high-pitched voice and unexpectedly long, grammatically correct sentences catch people off guard. But this is hard to explain to someone her age (turning three this week!) I’m also not sure when she learned that “funny” can be bad, or that people can laugh at each other judgmentally.

Another day, towards the end of the summer, I was dropping Anna off at daycare when I was accosted by two soon-to-be-kindergarten boys: “Is it pajama day? Why is Anna wearing pajamas?” She was wearing a shirt with a repeating pattern of cars under overall shorts. I hadn’t thought of it before, but the shirt probably was at one point intended as half of a pajama set — I’d bought it on it’s own at a thrift store. I wasn’t sure what to say, other than “she’s two.” Defensively, I wanted to say that it wasn’t pajamas. I was disturbed that, even as an adult, I wasn’t moved to proclaim that we should all wear whatever we like and feel comfortable in — which is what I think.

That same week, The Globe & Mail published an article that, to majorly paraphrase, basically says “buy your kids expensive jeans so they don’t get bullied.” Thank you, national newspaper, for telling me to help my child conform. I was livid. But there was something about the experience I’d had with those boys at the daycare that made me wonder if in 10  years I might be considering buying expensive jeans for my kid as she enterd high school. I was ashamed of myself for thinking it.

Anna’s newfound self-consciousness has been coming out in other places, too. This past weekend I was sorting through a bunch of hand-me-downs we’d been given and pulled out a pair of Mr. Potato Head high-tops. “Why do I have boy shoes?” Anna asked. If she didn’t like them, I certainly wouldn’t force her to wear them, but I’m pretty sure she was only asking because she’d only ever seen boys in high tops. I asked her if she liked Mr. Potato Head and if she liked the shoes. She said yes to both.

Read more: Does your child challenge traditional gender roles? >

Another day, during daycare pickup, she was protesting being called Anna Banana, the uncreative nickname that’s followed her from daycare-to-daycare. “I’m not Anna Banana; I’m just Anna!” Fair enough, though it’s probably a name she’ll hear again. The daycare staff were supportive and asked the kids to call her by her proper name. What worried me was my daughter’s assumption (or knowledge?) that she was being teased.

The most recent thing to happen was just yesterday. I was fixing Anna’s pigtails when she said, “My friends at daycare say I don’t have any hair, but I do have hair!” She has hair. And it should be fine if she didn’t. She has light-coloured wispy hair, and most days would prefer not to have clips and elastics in it. I often notice that kids the same age as her, or younger, have thick, dark, styled hair and look older than her. But since when did how old you look matter to the preschool set?!

In many ways, I’m not worried about my daughter’s self-esteem. She tells me she’s beautiful sometimes. I say and hear people say many kind things about her intelligence and cuteness. Just yesterday she told me that the goldfish in a pond were going to cry because she was leaving. But despite the crying fish, I’m realizing that, intentionally or not, other people can be brutal, and even tiny feelings can get hurt. And I’m still not solid on what to say the next time Anna asks why people on the bus are looking at her.

When did you notice your kids become self-conscious?