When toddlers rebel against whatever they’re wearing, it’s not because they have an opinion about how their tiny pants actually look. Your baby isn’t developmentally capable of looking in the mirror and wondering whether he or she is good looking. In fact, for many years children still half suspect that their reflection is merely some other kid wearing their clothes. But around age 5 children become aware of their appearances, developmental psychologist Oksana Hagerty told Fatherly.
“You can’t expect a kid to be able to understand why they can’t wear dirty pants to a birthday before the age of five,” Hagerty says. “The ability to be aware of physical appearance, emotions, and feelings is developmentally quite a sophisticated function. It doesn’t come for very young children.”
A large body of research shows that, from birth, children go through a complicated cognitive development process where they gradually begin to perceive a whole world and other people (with their feelings and perceptions) outside of themselves. This doesn’t happen all at once, and it would be terrifying if it did. This occurs over the course of the “Five Stages of Self Awareness.” And, while children develop a basic understanding of their appearance at the final level, theory of mind does not stop there and continues to develop into adolescence. Opinions about attractiveness—call it “vanity” are a part of that, and depends largely on what kids observe in their day-to-day lives.
In extreme cases, young girls in America and the UK start to form opinions about their appearances almost immediately at 5-years-old. But it’s not just a girl problem. Up to one-third of boys worry about how they look at age six, studies suggest. Media images and cultural messages are the most obvious factors in how body image takes shape, but parents also play a role. Studies show that self-critical mothers tend to have daughters with lower self-esteem, and that parents who use positive language when discussing physical appearance can help their children develop healthy body images.
Although this self-awareness can be heartbreaking, it’s also a signal that healthy cognitive development is taking place. Absence of basic vanity could be a symptom autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit disorder, or even depression, and reason to consult with a pediatrician.
When children fall to the other extreme and begin worrying about their appearance, Hagerty suggests a less conventional approach. “Very often when you try to teach self-confidence it’s replaced with assertiveness and pushiness because they’re easier to develop,” she says. The alternative is to redirect their cognitive development, rather than tame one aspect of it. Instead of letting your children dwell on beauty, fill their thoughts with exercises in organization and self-regulation—two other areas of cognitive development that are more important than vanity.
Still, as long you’re being honest about your own potential preoccupation looks, modeling healthy behaviors, and not placing any added pressure on your family’s appearance, your vain kindergartener will step away from the mirror eventually and be just fine. “There’s enough pressure on kids coming from society, so be careful about that,” Hagerty says. “But don’t let it go entirely.”