Q. Our only daughter was 4 last month. We also have three sons, 14, 16 and 18.

I always wanted a girl, and we all love her very much. I dress her in pretty clothes, and I always put ribbons in her hair.

I think we are about to have a serious problem. No matter where we go people always stare at her and tell her she's pretty. This has been going on all her life, but recently it has gotten ridiculous. I feel like hanging a sign on her saying, "Please don't say I'm pretty." The other day when I finished dressing her she looked in the mirror and said, "Mommy, I am the prettiest girl in the world." I told her, as I always do, that she looked all right, and besides there were many good-looking girls in the world.

I am afraid all this attention will ruin her personality, make people dislike her or have a devastating effect on her later when she realizes she is not the prettiest girl in the world. Many people don't realize that when they compliment a child on her looks, she's probably heard it many times before. In my opinion this can be harmful. Am I right, and if so, what can I do about it?

A. There's nothing wrong with a pretty child thinking she's pretty, or a not-so-pretty one thinking it either. Every child should think she's beautiful or handsome as the case may be.

This self-appreciation is part of a child's inner core. If it's encouraged, it will give her a sense of style, of presence, all her life, although it won't be enough for her to rely on in the bleak years. For that's the sorrow of it. Good looks at 4 are no guarantee that there will be good looks right along. Nature is seldom so kind. There probably will be some middle years when her teeth are too big for her face and teen-age years when she is gawky or overweight and will ache for a compliment from anyone who isn't a doting relative.

That's why you not only tell her she's pretty now, but you don't even mention the competition she will meet one day. To do that gives her looks more seriousness than they deserve and it may set up a jealousy of others. A child should grow up knowing that the only person worth competing against is herself.

You do, however, need to talk to your daughter about being as pretty on the inside as she is on the outside. In appreciating her looks you also can help her see that it's the way she acts that matters. This is especially important as she gets older. If she remains pretty, other girls will need to know she realizes her looks aren't that important to her or they will be the jealous ones -- and she will be friendless. Conversely, the child who knows her personality and her character are as attractive as her face will have many friends.

Pretty people are only hurt by their looks if they have been allowed to use them to avoid the work that others must do, or to be rude or thoughtless.

To pretend that your daughter isn't pretty now would be confusing to her, and you would take away a blessing, much as you would if you said that she couldn't draw well when she could, or she didn't ride her trike very well when you knew she was the best on the block. A child needs every bit of comfort she can get before she starts first grade, for school can knock the stuffings out of a child.

You also will confuse her if you dress her to look beautiful--and then deny that she is. On the one hand you're telling her that she's supposed to look pretty and on the other you're saying she shouldn't. You can't have it both ways.

Basically you have to ask yourself what matters most to you and what is best for her. We get what we're looking for, most of the time -- even when we don't know what it is.

If you still think you'd like to hang a sign around her neck, why don't you take some signs away instead? You'll do it if you leave the ribbons at home and let her dress herself. She's old enough to do it, and the more she chooses her outfits, the odder they will get until she learns to match her colors and what to wear when. You'll find people often give a young child compliments when they know her mother has taken a good deal of trouble to make her look so pretty.

So far she's feeling pretty good about it. Give yourself a break. It's all right for you to feel good about it too.