Looking beyond cuteness

Every time I meet a new baby the sequence is the same.

“Oh look,” I say, raising my eyebrows as I gently tickle the infant’s tummy with my index finger, “isn’t this baby…” And then I pause for a second, restraining myself from inserting the usual adjective. “Isn’t this baby bright,” I utter, praising any eye contact the baby can achieve and even just the ability to limit its own dribbling, if that’s what it will take to establish my contention that baby is, indeed, bright.

I know I’m kidding myself, but I just can’t make myself offer the usual praise for a baby – isn’t this baby cute?

Now that I’m the father to a newborn – 12 weeks old and going strong – I’m as tempted as most other parents to offer up that usual description whenever I’m asked about my daughter. Sometimes I hold back, but often I yield to it.

Why do I dislike “cute” so much? To me, “cute” is a celebration of docile conformity. Cute is cherubic cheeks and fluttered eyelashes. Cute is knowing one’s place in the world rather than challenging it. Cute is an uncomplicated smile and an easy-going personality.

There’s a gender element to cuteness. I suspect girls are more likely to be praised for their cuteness than are boys, perpetuating the idea that girls should be polite, delicate and well-mannered to win the approval of adults. The word is the socially acceptable form of praising attractiveness, which is rightly becoming arcane as a description for children because of the values that go with it.

When I was a kid, I was never cute. I was loud and opinionated, confident of my place and willing to assert myself. I’d run around getting sweaty and dirty while collecting snails. I was bright and curious, but never cute. (Three decades on, little has changed, except perhaps for the snails.)

Other kids were cute and got plenty of praise for it. They were the kids who dressed nicely, sat quietly and smiled a lot. It used to frustrate the heck out of me that adults would give praise to the cute kids, but not to the bright kids.

I came to resent the celebration of cuteness and the “know your place” attitude that it encouraged.

It is no coincidence that the other contexts in which cuteness is praised also celebrate docility. Some pets are cute – furry ones, small ones or ones that play up their own helplessness. A Chihuahua is cute, but a Doberman, not so much. Some boy bands are cute – ones that are clean-cut and unthreatening, posing no challenge to the established order. One Direction may be cute, but the Sex
Pistols were never described that way.

(The Oxford is unintentionally revealing in this respect. The three example sentences it offers for cute cite kittens, animals and the eyes of a woman as bearers of cute.)

So when it comes to other people’s kids, I search intently for any quality to praise other than cuteness.

Which brings me to my daughter. In the early weeks it was hard to find much to praise other than her cuteness. Like all babies in their first few weeks, she was completely incapable of discretionary activity – her life was spent acting out reflexes: eating, excreting and sleeping. Given this reality it would have been wishful thinking for me to praise brightness or curiosity. And so, reluctantly, I would praise her cuteness instead.

Of course some may think I’m taking this all too seriously. After all, celebrating cuteness in a baby is not going to do him or her any harm.

But sooner or later the baby will turn into a toddler and understand what’s being said, in doing so understanding what behaviours are rewarded and what behaviours are discouraged. This is the process of socialising a child – teaching it what do to and what not to do.

That’s when I’ll be trying extra hard not to praise cuteness. I hope our daughter grows up to be assertive, creative, independent and thoughtful. These are the characteristics I would much rather praise.

My bright and curious daughter.


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