Why telling kids ‘looks don’t matter’ is the wrong approach.

robert hoge

We like to say that physical appearances don’t matter, but kids notice when we then spend our time fretting over which suits to wear or what haircuts to get, writes Robert Hoge.

When it comes to talking about how we look, kids are a thousand times more honest than adults. We do them the greatest disservice when we try to shake that honesty out of them by pretending to ignore how different people’s appearances can be.

And trust me, I know what it’s like to be different.

robert hoge
Robert Hoge.

During my development as a baby, a huge tumour formed where my nose should have been. The tumour was the size of a newborn baby's fist. It consumed my nose and pushed my eyes to the side of my head. Like a fish. I also had two deformed legs, which ended up having to be amputated.

My parents had no warning. Pre-natal scans didn't exist in the early 1970s. My mother must have known something was wrong when I was delivered, though. Instead of her first question to the doctors and nurses being, "Is it a boy or a girl?", she asked, "Is my baby okay?"

"No, Mrs Hoge," the doctor said. "He is not okay. He has a lump on his head and something wrong with his legs."

Click through the gallery below for more photos of Robert Hoge and his travels...(Post continues after gallery.)

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Since I told that story in my memoir Ugly in 2013 and in an episode of Australian Story, I've spent a lot of time talking to people about appearance and disability. I've come to realise that adults and kids treat these conversations significantly differently.

Whenever I talk to groups of children, I always start by eliciting a promise that we'll be honest with each other. Having secured that promise, I ask, in order, who thinks I'm "beautiful", who thinks I'm "normal", and, finally, who thinks I'm "ugly".

Usually I'll get a few kids who put their hand up for beautiful (bless them), none who think I look normal, and quite a few who think I look ugly. I have an opinion about what the answer should be, but I really don't mind which one the kids choose. It's just a great starting point for a discussion about appearance.

When I've tried it with adults, it has always fallen flat. Adults have an opinion, I'm sure, but society has taught us to politely pretend that appearance diversity doesn't matter by pretending it almost doesn't exist.

Watch Robert's TED talk below. (Post continues after video).

But it does exist. Kids talk to me about pimples and haircuts and attractiveness and being short all the time. They think about having scars or worry about their limp. They ask if how I look stopped me getting a job or a girlfriend. They ask the questions openly and with enthusiasm, because they're acutely aware of how big a role appearance plays in their lives.

Now I could tell them my appearance has never made a difference in my life but they'd call me out as a liar in two seconds flat. And they'd be right.

Adults sometimes claim "how people look doesn't matter". That's not enough for kids when that comment is the start and the end of the conversation. It's plastic politeness that is useful on one level but also ends up polluting the deeper conversation we should be having.

Robert Hoge's memoir, Ugly.

Answers to questions about appearance matter. And adults often avoid them because it's hard to acknowledge something about our child's appearance without attaching attributes to it. But adults have to work through it. Kids notice when adults say appearance doesn't matter, then spend their time fretting over which suit to wear or what haircut to get.

We need to expose kids to the beautiful, broad range of humanity - warts and all. Kids need to hear that lots of people have at one time or another felt pretty or ugly or smart or pimply. Then they need to hear that no one is just pretty, or just ugly, or just smart, or just pimply or just poor or just a fast runner or just in a wheelchair. No one is just any one thing.

Kids are primed to talk about this. When the discussion starts with perceived politeness that pretends difference doesn't exist, it sends a confusing message. I can guarantee you, they almost always feel a bit different themselves. Don't be afraid to talk to them about it.

Do you agree with Robert?

You can see Robert's story on Australian Story hereThe children's version of his memoir Ugly will be published in August.
Robert Hoge has worked as a speechwriter, a science writer and a political adviser.
This article originally appeared on The Drum. and was republished here with full permission.

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