Adult morality vs. child's play: Should kids be allowed to wear makeup?

Kinderling News & Features

My daughter just got an invitation to a make-up birthday party. She's six.

One of her little friends ran up to me in the school playground, gleefully announcing that they would be doing hair, make-up and nails. The whole biz. Darcy was jumping up and down beside me, a big grin on her face.

Meanwhile I was feeling slightly uncomfortable. How did I feel about this theme? Wasn't she too young for a make-up party? Wasn't this completely against my feminist principals?

What a quandary, and it wasn't even nine o'clock yet!

When adult morals clash with childish desires

As I pondered these questions on my way to work, I started to think about the other times my adult morality had come into conflict with my kids' ideas of play.

There was my original aversion to taffeta princess dresses, thinking it was an outdated ideal of femininity I didn't want her to embrace. That went out the window when I saw how much she enjoyed the them, and how it brought her out of her shell and into a whole new world of play.

Then my son started asking for a nerf gun. I didn't have much time to think about my objection to guns before my husband had bought him one. Still. If it hadn't been a nerf gun, it would have been a stick. Or a fork, or my brush, or a plastic bottle. You get the picture. One day when Darcy and I were out, Arlo and his dad built an obstacle course in the house and played shoot outs. They had so much fun.

Was a make-up party really different from any of these things?

We need to see the world through their eyes

Psychologist Karen Young says our morality comes from our life experience and perspective. We need to take a step back and see the world through our children's eyes.

We have to remember that a child's world is very different to the world we live in as adults, and we want that. We want them to feel safe to explore the different parts of themselves - as heroes, carers, leaders, creators, peacemakers, rule-makers, rule-breakers. When they play, they try on different roles in a really safe way.

They're experimenting, says Karen.

I love that idea. That these games are innocent, but that doesn't mean the rest of the world is innocent too.

How to really make a difference where it counts

If you're worried about the impact of advertising and its messed-up portrayal of beauty or the insidious nature of toxic masculinity, keeping them home from a make-up party or refusing to buy the nerf gun is not the answer.

While ultimately you need to choose what's right for your family, Karen says in your child's eyes, it's innocent.

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What's important are the conversations about respect and kindness and not hurting other people. As parents, we need to give them this strong scaffold so when the decisions are out of our hands - which they will be soon enough - they'll make the right ones, she explains. 

I'm not going to stop her going to the party

I'd be lying if I said I'm not still slightly uncomfortable about the idea of a make-up party. But this is not about me. It's about my daughter and allowing her the freedom to explore different experiences in her life.

I do need to make sure she has a good understanding about what beauty really means.

Karen says it's up to parents to push back against the definitions that society has around beauty. We need to show our children that beauty is a diverse concept, and not one that is defined by impossibly gorgeous models on TV.

We can tell them they're smart, funny, strong, brave, powerful - but we need to include beautiful in there as well. If we don't, they are left with a definition of beautiful as something they see on the billboards, on in television commercials.

Tell them when they wake up and they have their puffy sleepy eyes that they are beautiful. Tell them when they have stringy wet hair. Tell them when they are covered in mud and grass and sweat. And of course tell them that they're brave, strong, powerful too. By doing this, we dilute the impact of the ridiculous messages they will be exposed to everyday (whether we like it or not), about how they should look and how they should be.

Now this is a message I can really embrace. I love that we don't need to eradicate the word beautiful from our vocabulary as we bring up our girls. I say it to my daughter all the time, and it has never just described what she looks like to me.

Next time I get an uncomfortable feeling about the way my kids play I'm going to have to check myself, and ask myself whether I'm looking at it through their eyes, or mine.