The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Parents are chief messengers of inner beauty’s value


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

We adopted a little girl, and she is very beautiful. I have taken to heart your admonition to center praise around effort and accomplishments and not looks (although I sometimes slip; she really is cute).

My question is: What can I do about comments from people meeting her? [Noting her beauty] is usually one of the first things out of their mouths. And she meets a lot of people; she has a way of making friends with everyone in the store/restaurant/coffee shop just because she’s so outgoing.

Is there a graceful way to demur without being rude, or do we just hope the family emphasis on character has more weight than the entire rest of the world’s comments on her looks?

Raising a Beautiful Child

This is really hard, because people can’t (or won’t) help themselves, and kids do internalize messages they hear daily.

You can send a polite message to people who say she’s beautiful by saying, “Inside and out, thank you.” You can also be patient, because the comments directed to you as though she’s not even there will slow down as she gets older.

And you can hold onto the fact that your influence towers over that of the people she meets, at least until peers take over. That’s not to say every remark you make about her looks needs to be treated as a “slip”; you’d be overcompensating if you never said, “I think you’re beautiful.” But if the bulk of the message is about things she controls — like her effort, her attitude, her manners, her determination, her compassion — then her chief messenger can lay a stable foundation (inner beauty trumps outer) beneath what the world keeps implying (outer beauty rules).

Check out the work of Carol Dweck or read “Nurture Shock,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, for more on constructive praise.

Dear Carolyn:

My husband’s entire family lives in one suburb of a major metro area, and it is a nice area. We recently purchased a new house in a different suburb 20 minutes away. My family lives two hours away, so a 20-minute drive didn’t seem that big of a deal to us. Plus, the tradeoff of fantastic schools and close shopping centers was appealing.

However, ever since we moved, his family has been giving us a lot of grief over moving “away from everybody” to what they call the “rich town.” My sister-in-law actually asked me if I would still let my kids play with hers, or if I would consider it “slumming.”

Carolyn, we made this move because it was the best thing for our family, not because we think his family is a bad influence. How can I get our relationship back on track?

Neighborhood Ties

Dismiss the badgering with a cheerful, “Oh stop,” and change the subject to a familiar, neutral one. “How’s Aunt Whosit’s whatever?”

This is about their insecurities, not your real estate, and the worst thing you could do is change your behavior or get all earnest about justifying your decision. That would only reinforce the idea that your new house makes you different — and keep you on the hamster wheel of trying to fix their insecurities through your actions, when only their actions will do.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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