The Problem With Cute Kids

“We often think that children are cutest when they are most intent and serious about what they are doing.  Patting a mud pie, for example.  They act as if it were important. How satisfying for us to feel we know better.” – John Holt

In his book Escape From Childhood, educator John Holt relates a “most embarrassing moment” shared with him by a friend. The friend was walking in a department store behind what she believed were two little boys when “feeling affectionate and mischievous, she put a fingertip on each boy’s head. In an instant, two furious adult faces looked up at her, and in a harsh, high, but adult voice, one of them said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’”

It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to Holt that his friend’s embarrassing story belied a common and unfortunate perception – that it would have been okay to touch these men of short stature had they been children, even though she didn’t know them from Adam.

Is it our well-meaning perception of children as cute and adorable that causes us to treat them less respectfully than we would another adult?  Is every child’s round head ours to touch? Are babies ours to pick up and hold; their cheeks ours to pinch?

I’m reminded of Magda Gerber’s thoughtful words, “Many awful things have been done in the name of love, but nothing awful can be done in the name of respect.”

Our love and affection for children is a positive thing, but if we don’t make the conscious effort to respect first, these positive feelings can lead us to treat children in demeaning, diminishing ways.

Not Just Cute, the expressive title of Amanda Morgan’s engaging parenting website says it all. Puppies, kittens and dolls might be cute, but our children need to know from the beginning that they are far more than that in our eyes. Even our babies need us to consider them ‘serious’ people. As Holt writes, “[Children] are not at all sentimental about their littleness. They would rather be big than little, and they want to get big as soon as they can.”

‘Cute’ isn’t a word to be abolished from our vocabulary. It has its purposes. For one, I feel much more comfortable calling someone of the opposite sex “cute” than “hot” (as my teenagers might). But “cute” spills out of me much more than I’d like, especially with young children. Our little ones can be so delightful and charming that it’s challenging to compose ourselves.  This is yet another parenting challenge, but a worthy one: taking care not to minimize, weaken and lessen those who most need our empowerment.

Here are some instances when our children should definitely not be perceived as cute…

1. When they’re upset

Has anyone ever told you, “You’re cute when you’re angry”? Perhaps this only happened in 1940’s movies, but don’t tell me it wouldn’t enrage you if it did! And yet, situations like the one John Holt describes in this passage happen all the time…

“One afternoon I was with several hundred people in an auditorium of a junior college when we heard outside the building the passionate wail of a small child. Almost everyone smiled, chuckled, or laughed. Perhaps there was something legitimately comic in the fact that one child should, and without even trying, be able to interrupt the supposedly important thoughts and words of all these adults. But beyond this was something else: the belief that the feelings, pains and passions of children were not real, not to be taken seriously. If we had heard outside the building the voice of an adult crying in pain, anger, or sorrow, we would not have smiled or laughed but would have been frozen in wonder and terror.”

2. When they express kindness, generosity, love and affection

As hard as it is for some of us not to exclaim an adoring “Awww!” when a baby holds hands with another, a toddler hugs his friend or hands another child a toy, it’s important that we try to restrain ourselves. Yes, these exquisite moments are the good stuff of parenting, rewards that we should enjoy and celebrate. But it’s safer to do so quietly, especially if the child isn’t looking our way.  Our exuberant expressions of appreciation distract and turn the child’s authentic act into a little performance. These acts become a way to garner our positive attention, which can then become the sole motivation for them.

Our perception of children as cute ends up interfering with their intrinsic motivation.  Children might be encouraged to take on the “cute” identity and become unconsciously motivated to exploit it…

“A cute child soon learns to do almost everything she or he does, at least around adults, to get an effect.  Such children become self-conscious, artful, calculating, manipulative. They pay more and more attention to how they appear in the eyes of others. I often see such simpering, mincing, cutesy-smiling, fake-laughing children with adults in public places. They become specialists in human relations, which they see more and more as a kind of contest to see who can get the most out of others.” –Holt

3. When they are focused, determined, brave or trying to do new things

“I used to think the clumsiness of infants learning to walk was cute. Now I watch in a different spirit. Although there is nothing cute about clumsiness – any more than littleness – there is something very appealing and exciting about watching children just learning to walk.  They do it so badly, it is so clearly difficult, and in the child’s terms may even be dangerous.  Most adults, even many older children, would instantly stop trying to do anything that they did as badly as new walkers do their walking. But infants just keep on. They are so determined, they’re working so hard and they’re so excited that learning to walk is not just an effort and struggle but a joyous adventure.” –Holt

These qualities in children aren’t cute — they’re inspiring. And the upside (for me, at least) is that children who are used to being respected won’t buy anything less. They see through the “cute” treatment and feel only distrust for the person offering it — knowing beyond all doubt that they are much, much more.


(If you’d like to read more of John Holt’s essay “The Cuteness Syndrome”, a slightly different version of the latter part has been reprinted here: The Natural Child Project

Photo by Jude Keith Rose



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. It was thought-provoking. Thank you. I am going to send the link to the families in my infant class and also share it with my colleagues.

  2. I think hearing your parents say
    ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’” to anyone is a lot more disturbing then an adult attempting to play a game with a kid. Not that I think tapping them on the head was a good idea. I understand your point but I think it is taken a bit too far.
    Are you giving this word just a little too much power?
    I see cute and sweet use synonymously. Is it sweet to see a child learning to walk – the determination, persistence, innocence? Is it sweet to see them giving genuine affection? I think the overuse of this word is harmful but not occasionally.
    However, it’s not sweet when they are upset – it’s not cute. I completely agree with this one – anyone’s vulnerable moment should not be belittled.

    1. Stacy, I appreciate your comment. The person who said “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” was an adult. A child would probably not respond that way, but just feel uncomfortable. Children don’t feel they have the right to defend their personal boundaries. It’s up to the adults who love them to teach them to do that. Plus, children are very forgiving of everyone, including adults, which is great…to a point.

      1. I think children absolutely feel they have the right to defend themselves, and do. It is adults who teach them they are lesser and do not have the rights, but if this is not the message fed to them then they complain in the same way an adult would (well maybe not with the same words, but you know what I mean.) I’ve frequently seen my kids complain when an adult does something they do not like, but they are not schooled and do not see themselves as inferior to adults.

    2. Stacy: The “children” who were touched on the head were actually adults. Little people. Their parents didn’t say anything. One of the men who was touched on the head looked up and said this. Just to clarify.

    3. I think the reason people chuckle when they hear an upset child isn’t because they think the child is being stabbed or something – of course that isn’t funny – but because we know that most likely they’re just a bit hungry or sleepy and that their problem will be easily resolved by the parent. ‘If only my problems were so easy to solve!’ we’re thinking. Plus, in a social situation it’s more polite to smile a little when a child is crying; it lets the parents know that we understand their plight and don’t think they’re the worst people in the world just because their kid is having a hard time – who hasn’t been there? Much of the article I agree with, but I thought this part was not well thought through.

      1. This article has me thinking for sure. Reminding me of somethings I have already known, but forgotten. I do agree though, that a child cries multiple times a day. And, while not meaningless or insignificant, it is difficult to compare to an adult who likely does not cry very frequently, and rarely if ever in public. If an adult is wailing in public, there is surely something terribly wrong. If a toddler is, it could be for numerous reasons, all helped solved by a loving parent, and not needing the assistance of another adult to remedy the problem.
        That being said, I have often been disheartened by other parents minimizing their childs upset feelings, and was angry and heartbroken to watch a mom (abuse in my opinion) her daughter – yelling at her about how stupid she was for throwing a tantrum over something that the mom considered insignificant. I felt so sorry for that little girl and I pray that she will learn one day that she is significant and wonderful and her mother was mistaken when she treated her poorly…..

      2. I agree with you, Vicky. I smile at the sound of a child crying many times… not because I am belittling the emotions of a child, but because I have been there. It may be more of an empathetic smile for the parent. I had to carry my own toddler out of a store just yesterday, wailing and screaming. I remained very calm and noticed the smiles as well as the looks of judgement. I find my own little one delicious, cute, precious, whatever word I may use at the time. But it is not to diminish her. I am enthralled with her, and am so passionate about watching her figure out the world. Cute may be my shorthand way of expressing it so others don’t realize how crazy I really am 🙂

        1. ALLIE CHAPMAN says:

          Janet, today my son came home and after a small fit of defiance started crying that no one at his daycare thinks he is cute. I have definitely overdone it. I’m wondering how to reverse the damage before it’s to late. I see the error in my ways but was also brought up on heavy praise (and heavy criticism). I’d like to break the habit and learn to rejoice in other ways. Please can you provide some guidance.

    4. I read it the first time that the parents of the children were upset and reprimanding the friend who touched their heads. Then I realized reading on, the friend had mistaken the adult little people in front of her for “children.”

    5. nono what happened was that she put her hand on two very short men that she mistook for children.

  3. This is so thoughtful. It reminds me of when I was very little and I would try to express myself around adults and was unfortunately laughed at. They obviously thought I was being cute but it hindered me from being outgoing for quite some time. I could never understand why they would laugh.

    Also, it is a good reminder to never tell stories about my girls as though what they did was nothing less than a funny story meant to share with adults. I absolutely hated when my parents did this!

  4. Fantastic post- and so, so true. It actually makes me angry on behalf of children when they’re patronised like this.

  5. I love this article! Very thought-provoking. I’m sharing it with all my parent friends. I totally agree with all the points mentioned, and I do make a point of not laughing or retelling funny stories – at least in front of my son – but this article helped me to see too additional areas that I would really like to focus on changing how I respond.

  6. We have an Unconditional Parenting book club on A Living Family, and one of the commenters told a story and asked about this very thing just this week. He was having trouble thinking of what to say to people who seem to want his child to cheer them up (because they are cute). I was having a hard time thinking through why exactly others behavior towards our kids can be so troubling when it seems things like pinching cheeks is so common. Thanks for getting to the heart of the matter.

    Do you have any suggestions on what a parent might say to a stranger who is crossing personal boundaries of a young child or baby? (Something beyond a dirty or angry look?) How can a caregiver make this concept make sense to someone who clearly does not see a child’s person(hood) as something to be respected?

    1. Sheila, that is an excellent question. I would simply place my hand in the way and say, “Please don’t come too close, she might be afraid of you. She needs a little time to warm up to new people”, something like that. Most adults don’t want to risk making a child cry.

      Here’s what Magda Gerber says in Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect:

      “What many parents find truly difficult is to ‘protect’ the child from the ‘assault’ of well-meaning family members and friends. My advice is to start out saying that you have learned that your child functions better when given the time to adapt to new situations and people. Do not criticize what others do, just gently yet firmly stick to your own principles — for example, not letting your child be handed around like a ball. Family and friends may tell you or think that your are crazy or exaggeratedly protective. Take the blame; quietly accept responsibility for your stance. Soon they will accept your ‘stubbornness’ and may learn to enjoy you and your baby on your terms.”

      1. Thank you so much for the response! I think the advice is doable, although folks may not want to hear it, as Magda Gerber said. I will share it on the UP book club post for all of us to learn from.

        1. Thanks, Sheila! In my own experience (and I tend to be a people pleaser) this sometimes comes down to choosing your battles and doing the best you can, but always acknowledging to the child afterwards if anything odd or uncomfortable has happened. Maybe even apologizing, too. “I’m sorry I let Uncle ____ take you away from me. I won’t let that happen again.”

          1. Oh, that’s a great suggestion! I often apologize when I have done something I wish I hadn’t. This is no different! That makes me feel better, to have that option.

          2. I find this particularly difficult with my two children. I like to think we treat them with respect and value tham as a person and not by their looks. I get very uncomfortable when strangers come up to us telling us how cute they are and touching their hair without permission. I don’t feel confident enough to tell them to leave us alone so just say thank you and move away. I want to be a better roll model but as a people pleaser I’m not comfortable being rude to older ladies

      2. Some people, whom we don’t know, seem to think that they are entitled to have a conversation with my son. (I really don’t get this behaviour on the part of adults.) He is two and has a speech delay, so his vocabulary is small. He’s also so tall for his age that he is frequently mistaken for being at least four, and we’ve also had people assume to his face he has a disability that he doesn’t when he doesn’t respond.

        I’m going to try some variation on what you said, Janet, for my son when strange people start trying to chat with him. I’ve been looking for a way to tell these people to back off while modelling appropriate behaviour for my son, and this seems to be a good way to do it.

        1. While I understand the anxiety this situation may cause you and your son, and think you’re right to handle the situation the best way it suits your family, I enjoy when strangers engage in conversation, with me and with my daughter. I think the world is a better place when we engage with others that we don’t know. I think it helps children create a broader and more friendly world.

      3. Katharine says:

        Janet, I have been scouring the Internet in need of this advice. Thank you!! And in another comment, you said something about “protecting intrinsic motivation.” Exactly the phrase I needed in my toolbox.

        By the way, I’m a recovering people pleaser, too, and advocating for my 9 mth old has been the most phenomenal, teeth chattering, rewarding work, ever!

  7. Can’t they be both? My son is 6 months old. He’s working on learning to crawl. It’s adorable, and oftentimes hilarious. It JUST IS. That doesn’t mean I don’t ALSO take it seriously, that I can’t see how hard he’s working and wanting and getting frustrated. Isn’t the important thing here that we not condescend? Not patronize? I think it’s ok to be moved to feel that “Awww” sentiment so long as we also respect them enough to not insult their dignity by patting them on the head.

    1. Thanks, Meagan. I think feeling “Awww” and exclaiming it out loud are two different things. I agree that the most important thing is not to condescend and patronize. This is more about maintaining a level of awareness than it is about “right” and “wrong”.

  8. Great article and timely for me as I realised a couple of days ago that my 11 month old son has started kissing his teddies to get a (very) positive reaction from me and so I have stopped reacting and instead just state what I’m seeing – ‘You’re giving monkey a kiss, that’s nice.’ Is this what I should be doing?

    1. Hi Sarah! I think that’s a perfect adjustment. I guess you could even take it a step further and omit “nice”, if you wanted to be really careful about protecting intrinsic motivation. Don’t want to sound nit-picky, though! 🙂

      1. Thank you for the reply 🙂

  9. the biggest problem(s) with ‘cute’ is that babies grow out of it, and older siblings can’t compete with it.
    respect, on the other hand, endures forever!
    excellent article 😎

  10. This is thought provoking… but also joy-killing! Parenting has all too many moments that are shall we say, less than cute. And it is often hard work! Can’t we as parents just enjoy something cute our kids do without having to over-analyse?

    1. Hi Nicole! Of course you should enjoy the things your kids do! I said that, didn’t I? I think that seeing these things as much more than cute makes them far more enjoyable and inspiring. Children can be surprisingly generous, kind, loving, intelligent, tenacious, resourceful, ingenious, creative, witty and the list goes on. Celebrate these moments because they are the expression of beautiful human qualities. Celebrate them in older children and adults, too. But if we celebrate loudly rather than quietly within ourselves, we can steal these things from our child and interfere with their intrinsic desire to do them. I’ve seen children hug, get a big applause, and then bite right afterwards.

  11. Darn it, I hate agreeing. I only comment when I have something to add, not a “Me too, I agree over here!”, and as I started to read your piece I was formulating a contrarian response, but as usual you are thoughtful in your piece. I even wanted to clarify or chime in with some fine points, but I think they would just detract from this piece.

    So, I’ll just say that I Agree 🙂

  12. Janet, do you have any suggestions for responding to a child who says “aren’t I cute?” or “am I cute?”. I don’t really know when this all clicked in B’s mind. I know there’s not a day that goes by that when we’re in public someone exclaims “HE’S SO CUTE!”. it makes me feel uncomfortable and i don’t know how to respond. never mind those who want to touch him or the one’s who want command performance from him. arrgh! i just say thanks and move along. Now i sit here everyday wondering if i’m creating a narcissist. when he asks “aren’t i cute?” i tell him he’s more then that. do you have any other suggestions for responses?

    1. Michi, I would tell him that, yes, he is cute and will always be cute and that is something people who don’t know him well might say. “If they did know you better, they wouldn’t describe you that way, because you are so much more. You are strong and agile and wise and interesting and kind and loving (etc.). You are many other things that we don’t even know about yet. You are totally unique and “cute” is only a teeny little sliver of what you are.”

    2. My daughter used to have strangers touch her and it always startled me. (She was beautiful with long curly blond hair and it was like a magnet to people.). When people would, as the frequently did, comment on how cute she is, I would respond with something like, “Yes she is, and she is kind/good at drawing/(or something else) too.”” That usually gently shifted the focus from her cuteness being her only defining characteristic and hopefully, she would retain a memory of what I had said and would be saying that in her head too.

  13. christine says:

    i love this post… and along the lines of what i posted on your FB page, i remember feeling angry and frustrated when people dismissed my efforts at something as being “cute” or “funny”.

    my son has SPD and this statement really resonated with me:

    “Is it our well-meaning perception of children as cute and adorable that causes us to treat them less respectfully than we would another adult? Is every child’s round head ours to touch? Are babies ours to pick up and hold; their cheeks ours to pinch?”

    to a child with a sensory disorder this type of space invasion is the ultimate assault. while i was always super protective of my son from this type of adult behavior (i am the mean hippy mommy that blocks strange old ladies from touching my kid in the supermarket) now that we have a diagnosis of SPD i am more vigilant. i often warn strangers and friends alike that he has this condition, that he does not like to have people in his face/space, and that he needs to be allowed to make the initial contact. some people are understanding, others are affronted by this. as if to say “why should i give such a small child the respect and dignity to initiate contact, i’m the adult afterall”. i don’t really care what others think though, i’m his mother, i know what his needs are, and i respect those needs and him as a real whole person.

    1. Wow, Christine. You are a sensational mother! Your son is a lucky boy. Yes, you’ve nailed an unfortunate, pervasive attitude…. “why should i give such a small child the respect and dignity to initiate contact, i’m the adult after all”. This is the perception we have to keep working to change. And you are doing that by defending the rights of your son. My wish is that you wouldn’t have to tell people, strangers especially, about his diagnosis. That’s none of their business! It should be enough that he’s a whole person, deserving of same human respect for his personal space that these adults would expect for themselves.

  14. Elanne Kresser says:

    John Holt and Magda Gerber are the two people I have been influenced by the most regarding childhood. It seems to me that their two approaches are so compatible and congruent. Both such advocates for really learning to see young people as full human beings. Loved reading this post.

    Escape from Childhood is probably his only book I haven’t read! Will have to pick it up.

    1. Elanne and Janet, I think they were both very similar. John Holt (and his staff at Growing Without Schooling) was my ‘guide’ when I started educating our two sons at a time, 30 years ago, when very few people chose what we considered a more respectful type of education for our children.

      When I learned about Magda in my RIE Foundations course in 2009 and watched videos of her at work and discussing her philosophy I found it so easy to understand so much of what she believed in.

      I recently finished reading The Legacy of John Holt a collection of tales by people who knew John Holt personally telling how he influenced their lives. I wish I’d met him but he was in my life for many years and always supplied me with courage, even long after he died. Just as Magda does for so many now.

      Thank you.

  15. Great article Janet, so many great points here. Reading it made me reflect on just how much re-wiring, perception shifting we as a culture need to go through in our slow awakening to relating to the child’s real feelings and real needs. This is such a good point: “Our exuberant expressions of appreciation distract and turn the child’s authentic act into a little performance.” There are so many unnecessary interruptions to a child’s very serious concentration on their current focus, whether it’s “you’re doing great!”, “Be careful!” or “oh look at you you’re so adorable”. I love the way you delve into these details that are easy to overlook but greatly in need to hightened awareness.

    I’ve also had a realization in reading this about my relationship with my hubby. He’s very loving, affectionate and complimentary and this writing brought to light why I can’t take his compliments in so often. It’s that irritation because what I look like is so far from and irrelevant to all that I’m feeling or talking about at the time and I instead yearn to draw his attention in to my inner world rather than my outer appearance.

    Not that I don’t appreciate his love and affection, I really do, but I think we all crave that deeper attunement and respect more so and it’s only once we’ve attuned that communication can reach each other in more meaningful ways. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  16. Janet, another couple of thoughts spurred by your article – have you read Robin Grille’s books Heart to Heart Parenting or Parenting for a Peaceful World? I think you’d really enjoy his writing and find a lot of correlation. He speaks a lot about what you’re discussing here. He delves into the dangers of treating little toddlers like cute little performing seals (I think was one of the analogies he uses)and fostering their dependence on our approval, the danger of conditioning them to attune to what parent might like them to do rather than following their own learning urges. I’ve also wondered if you’ve read and enjoyed Eleanor Reynolds’ book; “Guiding Young Children” (early childhood teacher and author)? Again I think you’d really enjoy.

    1. Genevieve, I’m delighted you’ve shared these thoughts with me… I’ve heard a lot about Robin Grille’s books and have now added them to my Christmas list. Will add “Guiding Young Children” as well. Love these tips, thank you!

  17. Great article! My dilemma is what do I say to the grandparents that are patronizing my child and crossing boundary lines. They laugh at my one year old a little too often. I know they find joy in watching him and teaching him things so that he will be able to “perform” for them but I find it exhausting and stressful.

    1. Hi Clynna! Unless the grandparents are daily child care providers, I would relax. Keep doing what you are doing and allow them to develop their own relationship with your son. He knows the difference and you have far more influence. Perhaps they will see something you are modeling and it will have an impact. That’s probably the best you can hope for! So, seriously, the worst thing going on here is that you are getting exhausted and stressed. Try to let go…

      1. Do you have any articles on this subject? My son’s grandparents have pretty much opposite views on everything to do with babies and children’s ‘stuff’ and, as of next year, they’ll be moving closer to us and will be spending more time with our son and, to be honest, I’m not looking forward to it!

          1. Great, thank you! I think ‘I’m not looking forward to it.’ was a bit harsh. I love them, I just have a lot of work to do on not getting so defensive and protective when they’re here. Lucky I’ve got lots of time to practice 🙂 Thanks again for such a wonderful site, Janet.

        1. Dear Janet. Thank you so much for all your inputs that are helping me so much in dealing with the everyday questions and challenges that are popping up with my 2.5 years old daughter Lily and also when observing other parents and their children.
          I share Clynna’s issue about family members or friends laughing about what Lily is saying or doing. I think I would be ok with this if Lily wasn’t bothered about it because – as you say – these people are not daily child care providers, we only meet them once in a while, and their laughter is essentially a way of expressing positive surprise about her beautiful and creative thoughts and actions (e.g. that a dentist might be hidden in the teddy bear’s belly, that somebody could hide in the sky when playing hide and seek, her passion about a pink trolley case she is pulling with her everywhere, her repeated asking about whether she could get a chewing gum…).
          But Lily actually does get very upset: she hushes, tenses up, hides in my lap, doesn’t want to continue what she was about to do, sometimes even starts crying.
          In such situations, I continue to respond as I always do (like “Ah, you think there is a dentist inside? Ok.” or “No, today you already had a chewing gum, there won’t be another.”), I try to re-focus her on what she was about to say or do and, if she is really upset, say something like “It seems you need a break, shall we go to our room?”. Lately, back in the room, I told her that I see that she gets upset when people laugh and that I totally get her because I also don’t understand why they need to laugh all the time but that it is not easy to tell them to stop, that I am sure that they mean no harm and are just expressing their positive surprise this way and that it is maybe sometimes good to tell oneself “I don’t care about these people laughing and do my thing”. But isn’t this a bit too much serious talk with a 2.5 years old?
          From your point of view, what would be best to do? Should I tell my friends and family members not to laugh (which I find very hard because they are quite self-confident in their behaviour and might feel offended) and if yes, how? I find this even more difficult than the kissing / hugging issue because it is seemingly less border-crossing (even though quite disrespectful in my view).
          Should I avoid such situations to protect Lily from too much stress (because I get the feeling that it is kind of wearing her self-confidence) or is her reaction rather a sign of insufficient “exposure” to various people and their reactions (partly due to corona, partly due to our setup of moving back and forth between two countries since Lily was 1 year old)?
          While our current life setup is how it is and I try to tell myself that as long as we are always there for Lily, announce changes, explain the situation and ensure continuous connection with other attachment figures (grandparents, godparents, a few children etc.) – at least through video calls – she should be fine, I still fear that these interruptions affect her somehow negatively…
          Well, a lot of thoughts connected to each other…

  18. love all the john holt quotes! great article – as always!

  19. Also have to add – this is a tough one for me! i have many moments of trying to stifle my laughter in ridiculously adorable ‘cute’ moments!! Then my son says ‘DON’T LAUGH AT ME!’ What i am seeing as ‘cute’ is very serious to him, and my laughter is demeaning.

    1. Leslie, I think this can be a tough one for all of us. As I said, I use ‘cute’ more than I’d like. Your son’s response is indicative of your respectful relationship… The fact that he told you off means he’s used to being respected and therefore continuing to demand it!

    2. I’ve heard every one of my siblings tell my father: “Don’t laugh at me!”. Every one of them.

      It drove us crazy that he thought we were cute when we were angry or serious or frustrated or whatever.

      I still hate being seen as cute. It’s like you can’t be cute and intelligent at the same time. And you DEFINITELY can’t be cute and powerful. That’s just an oxymoron.

  20. Thanks for sharing this, Janet. I so agree! Holt’s story about the kid crying really struck me. I had an experience once where a group of adults started laughing at my son when he got upset at the park. Another child had a toy he wanted or something like that. Apparently those folks thought it was cute and funny. I was FURIOUS! I actually said to them, “It’s not very nice to laugh at someone who is crying or in pain.” People seem to forget that kids are people too, even babies, even toddlers.

    I also found it incredibly insightful that responding to a child’s kindness as “cute” is totally counterproductive. I’ve seen this with other kids, but I try hard to avoid it with my son. Usually, I try to hide my look of complete adoration and heart-melting when I see him being generous or thoughtful. It’s hard not to be satisfied, but I do think it’s important not to label him as “cute” in those situations. I think it’s working…he seems to act “nice” spontaneously and not for effect from anyone. Hope this lasts!

    1. Sylvia, you are so sensitive and aware that I don’t doubt it will!

  21. Thank you for this important post. I go to great lengths to educate the community where I teach, about the competencies and risks that I see children engage in daily (while working with 4-6 year olds). Still, some adults can be dismissive of important stories and documentation of children’s work. Sometimes it just isn’t “cute” enough to be considered of value.
    With continued conversation, however, and lots of examples, stories and explanation (and posts like yours) the beauty and power of children can indeed be elevated as valid and interesting.

    1. Yes, let’s keep working on this! Thank you, Marla

  22. Great article – I was thinking about this very topic as it relates to teenagers this weekend. I was at a meeting at a friend’s house, and her teenage son came into the kitchen. There was a brief interaction with his mom, and some of the other people at the meeting snickered with a sort of “Sheesh, teenagers, aren’t they dorky” vibe. Even his mom made a face. I was embarrassed for the boy, and thought that these adults would never have reacted that way if he’d been an adult.

    It’s tough enough being a kid or a teenager without everyone commenting all the time on physical appearance or hormonal development. I’d hate that!

    1. Oy! Kitty, that sounds horrible. And we wonder why so many children grow up with no respect for authority and dislike their parents.

  23. I had never thought of all these!!! Thank youu! You sure help us into being better people!

  24. This post addressed two important themes: respect & validation. People sometimes treat women the same way too – not being taken seriously because you’re “cute.”

  25. This article reminds me of the movie “Babies”. There’s a scene where the Japanese baby is in the middle of an emotional breakdown, surrounded by toys. She stops crying, tries to piece together a toy, and throws her head back with a scream of frustration. Just about EVERYONE in the movie theatre started laughing (this happened both times I saw the film in a theatre). It broke my heart; there was nothing funny about a child who was clearly suffering and was at the mercy of her emotions. It angered me that nobody would respect that…

  26. Fantastic article!! I love it. Respectful parenting has always been the way we do things and I physically ache when my daughter has to deal with people who automatically turn to “oh that’s so cute!!”. I still remember a time when we had friends over for dinner and they were laughing – LAUGHING – at my daughter eating. She was under a year and we introduced solids BLW-style, so there she was chowing down on her “adult” supper like nobody’s business. They obviously did not mean any ill intent, but my daughter kept taking bites and looking around as if to think “why on earth are these people laughing at me?” It’s such a silly thing to have to remind people that children are PEOPLE and need to be treated as such.

  27. Dear Janet,
    Thank you for this insightful article. We have been discussing this very issue in our infant class. Some of the parents are worried about the “pass the baby game” that will surely be expected at upcoming family weddings. You have given clear statements that express the parents desire to respect their child’s personal space. Throughout this article I am reminded that young children rarely call each other cute; they take their peers attempts at mastery very seriously. We could learn something about respectful interaction from them.

    1. “We could learn something about respectful interaction from them.” Yes, Patricia, I wholeheartedly agree that children have volumes to teach us if we are open. Thanks so much for your comment and insight.

  28. hi janet. i’m a huge holtian. i also don’t like to use the word cute for too much other than an outfit…and i love that piece the cute syndrome. brilliant piece given to me by liz memel.

    however i am surprised by holt’s comments that kids would rather be big then little. in this context i take it they’d rather be big because then they wouldn’t be objectified and disrespected for just doing what they do.

    but to say they want to be something other than they are i think is inaccurate. my four year old hated it all last year when people said “you should raise the seat of your bike, you’re a big boy now” he was like “i like being little. i don’t want to grow up and i like my seat just the way it is” (and why do i have to explain this to some idiot for the fifteenth time!?) some children are afraid of growing up. and i can see why! the responsibility etc.he loves his life as is. he’ll raise his seat when he wants to. he’ll stop wearing diapers when he wants to. he’ll sleep in a bigger bed when he wants to. etc.

    1. Hi Jennifer! Your boy’s response makes sense considering the inappropriate comments made to him about being a “big boy” (a term I detest as much, if not more, than the expression “Awww, so cute”) I don’t know any children who respond well to being pushed to achieve things they are not ready to achieve. They almost always resist and try to hold on to what is being forced away from them.

      But I believe Holt means something altogether different… Kids want to be important, substantial citizens of the world, respected and taken seriously, rather than cute little objects of our affection. They don’t want to wait until they’re “big” to have that. And I see no reason they should.

      1. Francesca says:

        Hi Janet, have you written more about the “big boy” comments anywhere? I’m at the end of my rope for night nursing, going to try and night wean my 16-month-old in a couple of days I think, and I believe that the least helpful thing my husband can tell him is “You’re a big boy now and big boys don’t need milk.”

        Would really appreciate some respectful responses that my husband can give to the inevitable screaming. It’s strange, he really has a strong need to feel acknowledged himself but then gives exactly the standard “minimizing” and “distracting” reactions when our son has big emotions.

    2. People often call my 3 yr old a “big girl” for doing things like going potty, or for simply being helpful. She always tells them that nope, she is a little girl. She gets pretty mad when people try to convince her to do something by saying that “big girls do x,y,z.” I have found this interesting because it appears that she is happy with who she is and apparently doesn’t understand why these people would say something like that!

      However, I understand what Holt probably meant. She still likes to be helpful and try to do things that may be a bit beyond her.

      1. Yes, I think Holt is referring to being taken seriously, not being older. Unfortunately, the two seem to go together.

  29. My son always ducked and glared when someone would try to pat his head. I would politely tell them, he really hates to be pat on the head. Still some people tried. I thought they were rude, not him. He hated going to church because of this. I told him it was okay to tell adults stop and I don’t like that. It’s his body. When he did often people looked at him like he was being rude and then would glance at me shocked and I would just back him up. He also glares at anyone who over complimented his artwork or building, etc. He wasn’t doing it for them. I wondered if I was doing the right thing but believed in my heart that he should be respected as any other human being. It would not be okay to walk up to any other stranger and pat them on the head as you greet them or unexpectedly pick them up from behind to help them get a drink when they didn’t even ask for that help. It would just be weird to walk up to someone working on a project and start making cutesy comments to them. I can see how that could almost be insulting.

  30. Fantastic! I actually distinctly remember feeling so frustrated and sad as a child when I was trying to do or say something I considered to be important, only to have adults smile or laugh and say “how cute!” Now that I’m an adult, and a parent, I do of course have those moments when I see children (mine and others) do things that are so adorable and I want to squeeze their beautiful little faces, but I think it is an excellent point to try and remember that we would never do such a thing to another adult (in fact, when you think about it, it seems like most of us give more respect to strangers than to our children without even realizing it). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with finding the things our children do to be cute, but as parents, we do have to try to be mindful enough to avoid projecting that onto our kids. Bookmarking this to read whenever I need a reminder!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Alana. And yes, yes, yes to this:

      “It seems like most of us give more respect to strangers than to our children without even realizing it”

  31. I would have to say a lot of the truth on some of this depends on the personality of the child. While I am a firm believer in not touching other people’s children (unless there is an extenuating circumstance)if you are not on very close terms (then you should KNOW if the child welcomes physical contact or not)with the child. I would say with children who are highly internally motivated external comments can be frustrating or annyoing to them, whereas more externally motivated kids thrive on that.

    Also, some children are very serious children, others are not. Some children handle interuptions well, others do not. Some children enjoy someone working with or beside them, others do not. So I think it’s dangerous to make the kinds of generaliziations Holt is making, because each child is an individual with a unique perosonality, and honestly the FIRST step to respecting a child is to understand that and not engage in generalizations about all children.

    1. I see your point, but the problem with that way of thinking is that is always the adult deciding what’s okay for that particular child. Who are we to take that liberty?

  32. The main reason why adults chuckle and smile at one another when a child is crying in public is not to devalue the feelings of the child. We do this, instinctively, to provide a positive environment for the parents of the screaming child. Without this obvious peer approval, some adults, particularly immature adults or adults without children, become annoyed, enraged, and even abusive toward the parents. But, when this minority is surrounded by a community that is vocally expressing support and approval for a parent and cheerful understanding for the child, despite the “misbehavior,” they are forced to keep their annoyance, rage, and abusiveness to themselves.

    This is a positive community response and one that should be encouraged.

    1. With respect, Paige, my disagreement with you begins with your characterization of crying as “misbehavior”.

  33. I think this brings up a lot of good points and things to consider – but in whose world is it OK to tap other people’s children on the head in the first place? What a creepy thing to do. And the fact that they were little people makes it so much more insulting. Even if they were kids – who just touches someone else’s kids that they don’t know?? Creepy.

    1. I think that’s exactly the point, Mertyl… Apparently, there a lot of people who believe this is okay.

      1. It’s tricky where I live in Bali. The local Balinese are the warmest group of people I have ever met and absolutely adore children. I have two young babies with fair features and we are literally stopped in our tracks everywhere we go and they automatically put their arms out to hold them. One time we were on an escalator and a Balinese lady was talking to my baby behind my shoulder and actually leaned in and kissed him on the lips. And then you also have them wanting to take selfies. They look genuinely shocked when you tell them that they dont like it and it’s inappropriate. I guess it’s a cultural thing as everyone is the same!!

  34. I think it is because they have a innocent smile and laugh and all they want to do is play, giggle, and give hugs.

  35. But it is soooo hard coz they are soooo cute. I really try holding myself back, but my baby is so cute, my heart is gonna explode!

  36. I have a 9 month old and have read magda gerber’s books and so appreciate the wisdom. I really get the idea here, and yet I’m stumped around how one should then react when watching a child, say, attempting to walk. Do we sit and watch cold-faced so that the baby won’t be trained to seek any reaction from us and will perform their explorations authentically for themselves? If not, and we are able to express some enthusiasm, what is then the difference between cheering them on in some way and finding them sweet and cute? They will still relate to our enthusiasm as a reward to seek other than their own sense of accomplishment. How do we react without instilling them with this self consciousness?? And what about the ever present phone ready to record their first steps? Is that outlawed? Can we disguise it somehow, lol? I’m left really uncertain about how to be and somehow feel not expressing enthusiasm for my child’s accomplishments is not what I want to go for. Thanks!!

    1. My recommendation would be to observe your children, so that you can connect with their experience without interrupting or breaking their concentration and making it about “us”. One key way to gauge that is to wait for your child to make eye contact with you. Then you might acknowledge, “I saw that! Wow! You walked!” This isn’t about being a robot or “breaking the law”. 🙂 It’s about the way we perceive our children as whole people and consider their point of view.

  37. I have witnessed this too many times to count and if I said something to voice my concerns, it was brushed off and a lot of eye rolls where directed my way as if to say I had a problem for speaking up for the child.

  38. This is all very thought provoking. I don’t have children but have looked after them and have sensed when they have looked at me for a reaction to an achievement of theirs that they actually want me to join in with their excitement and share it with them rather than express approval. They don’t want or need my approval. Saying ‘yay!’ or ‘you did it!’ makes them beam whereas saying ‘well done’ or ‘good’ or ‘you’re a big girl now!’ seems to irritate them and/or they just ignore it.

    I still feel humiliated as well from the times I was mocked by my parents for when I was angry (usually because they were patronising me or forcing me to do something that was beyond my capability); it was a very lonely feeling. It never got better and now I’m grown up I’m permanently estranged from both of them. We need to be more careful how we treat children.

  39. Great article, Janet!!
    Once I was in a long distance train in Spain and there was a mom travelling with her 3-year-old son. Behind them sat an elderly woman. The child, who had a pacifier in his mouth, turned round and started interacting with her very cheerfully. All of a sudden she took away the pacifier and said ‘You don’t need it. You’re too old for a pacifier.’ The boy started screaming ‘Give it back! Give it back! It’s mine!’ My heart started pounding and my pulse accelerated. I couldn’t continue reading my book. She said she was going to throw it away and the boy started crying. Everyone started laughing, even his mom! I’m a very shy person and I didn’t know what to do! The boy got really upset and screamed again that he wanted his pacifier back. Everyone laughed again and his mom said, ‘If you scream again, I’m going to go away and leave you here on your own!’ Immediately and without thinking, I stood up and told the elderly woman to return the pacifier to the kid. I said, ‘What you are doing is very violent and abusive. He can’t defend himself from you. How would you feel if someone took your handbag or mobile phone, didn’t give it back to you and everyone around you started laughing at you?’ She replied that she wouldn’t mind that but returned the pacifier to the kid right away. The boy put the pacifier back in his mouth and turned round to sit with his mum. There was absolute silence for a few minutes. Then I saw how the kid turned round again, smiled at the woman and went back to interacting with her, playing and talking about different things. She didn’t disrespect him again the rest of the journey.

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