“Oh look how cute you are!!”
My 6-year-old frowns at me and rolls her eyes. I realise my mistake immediately.
We were looking at a photo of her as a chubby-cheeked one-year-old.
“I’m sorry”, I say, “I know you don’t like being called cute. I guess I thought it was different because I was talking about when you were a baby?”
She sighs in an I-know-what-you-mean-but-I-don’t-agree-with-you kind of way. “I’m not cute” she says indisputably.
“What are you?” I inquire.
“I’m sensible” she replies without hesitation.
With that one word, I now perfectly understand her whole problem with the word ‘cute’.
What does cute often mean to a child? Comical.
And what are children striving to do? Earnestly live in the world as whole human beings. They want to do real things and be taken seriously like anyone else, not be thought of as half people here for our entertainment.
When we think of our children as cute, we don’t want to send this message! We’re likely feeling overwhelming love and enjoyment for being with them. In fact, seeing them as ‘cute’ is perfectly natural. Scientists believe that young children have certain physical characteristics that make them totally adorable in order to elicit caretaking behaviours in adults.
The problem is when our perception of children as ‘cute’ causes us to treat them less respectfully than they deserve.
When my 6-year-old is called cute, what she hears is that someone is not taking her seriously. That she is silly or funny or naive. That the importance of her actions or thoughts have been overlooked in favour of her entertaining ‘childishness’.
How does it feel to be called ‘cute’ as an adult? Belittling? Dismissive? Uncomfortable? Awkward? Embarrassing? Especially in circumstances when you were being genuine or serious. It is no different for a child just because they are younger and generally accepted as being ‘cute’.
Although it may be natural to see children as cute, we should be mindful of how this sometimes leads to diminishing their worth. If your perception of a child as ‘cute’ interferes with your ability to see them as whole people and respect them in the same way as you would an adult, then it is a problem.
When does ‘cute’ become a problem?
When it’s dismissive
When children are being serious or working hard on something, to think of them as ‘cute’ can be disrespectful and dismissive. It devalues their efforts, believing them to be less important than an adult’s, or even comical.
“We often think children are most cute when they are most intent and serious about what they are doing. In our minds we say to the child, “You think that what you are doing is important; we know it’s not; like everything else in your life that you take seriously, it is trivial.” We smile tenderly at the child carefully patting his mud pie. We feel that mud pie is not serious and all the work he is putting into it is a waste (though we may tell him in a honey-dearie voice that it is a beautiful mud pie). But he doesn’t know that; in his ignorance he is just as serious as if he were doing something important. How satisfying for us to feel we know better.” –John Holt
Children want to be taken seriously, and they should be. They are learning about the world and that is no less important than an adult’s work. Their efforts are not ‘cute’ or funny, nor are their mistakes.
When it’s invalidating
We invalidate children when we treat their ideas, questions, wants, likes, and dislikes as trivial. When we laugh at the innocence of their questions, their thoughts, or their preferences, we act as if they are not valid people, but a source of entertainment. Their personalities, mannerisms, and appearance are often thought of as ‘cute’, totally overlooking the people behind them. Bundling all the uniqueness of a child up into the word ‘cute’ may send the message that you don’t see or value who they really are, or that the most important thing about them is how they look.
When it’s invasive
Sometimes, when people believe children are ‘cute’ they think it gives them the right to touch them, as if they are objects to be admired rather than people to be respected. Children out in public can be expected to receive unsolicited pats on the head, tickles, or pinches of cheeks. This is definitely not ok. Viewing children as cute objects to be poked and prodded is very problematic and violates their right to autonomy and safety.
When it lacks empathy
Have you ever seen a child in public crying, or maybe expressing anger? What were the reactions of the people around them? Hopefully some empathy, maybe some annoyance? You’ve likely also seen others smiling or even laughing at children in turmoil. We think it’s ‘cute’ they would get upset over insignificant things. Or that their little angry faces are charming. The appropriate response to a human who is struggling with overwhelming emotions is empathy. If seeing a child as ‘cute’ means that empathy for them is reduced, that is indeed a problem.
When it comes with expectations
‘Sing that song for grandpa’. ‘Show us how you do that trick!’. ‘Oh it’s so cute when you make that face, show your Aunty for me!’ Children are often required to perform for others like puppets, in the name of cuteness. But children are not here for our entertainment, unless they want to entertain of course! Coercing them to perform for people because they are ‘just so cute’ is not respectful.
When it’s limiting
‘Cute’ often seems to be synonymous with small, fragile, and incapable. In that case, viewing a child as cute can lead to underestimating or limiting their capabilities or freedom. If you see a child as cute, you may be less likely to see that they are also adventurous, fearless, determined, and independent. This can lead to providing less opportunities for exploring, or more cautioning against important risky play.
“We find children most cute when they display their ignorance & incompetence. We value their dependency & helplessness” –John Holt
Children can be cute. But, in the words of Miss 6, they’re also sensible. They’re determined, serious, important, hard working, valid, and worthy of respect. If our perception of them as merely ‘cute’ and entertaining becomes limiting, dismissive, invalidating, and disrespectful, then we need to reevaluate our words and actions. Examining how we view and treat children is so important in working to eliminate childism from our lives.
Children are not just cute, they’re so much more. Let’s be sure to honour and appreciate that.