My daughter’s aunt and I have different values — how do I teach my daughter the difference without being rude?

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My sister-in-law is planning to undergo elective plastic surgery after her second child is born. I love and support her in whatever she chooses to do but we have different values in regards to this topic. She’s in the beauty industry and my husband and I tend to steer clear of a lot of the mainstream pressure that industry puts on people.

My daughter is three years old and she’s very close to her aunt and hopefully always will be. But my truth is this: I want to help my daughter grow up feeling confidence that has nothing to do with her appearance. I never want her to feel like she isn’t beautiful enough by society’s standard. I want her to be so excited about her life and all the amazing things she’s going to do that undergoing a similar procedure wouldn’t even enter her mind.

How do I explain that to my little girl in a way that can be used as a teaching moment and not offend someone we love so dearly? — Anonymous

Comments on My daughter’s aunt and I have different values — how do I teach my daughter the difference without being rude?

  1. I think it’s important to mention that this is what you have decided, and everyone grownup gets to decide what to do with their body. This story sounds very similar to my own life- my mother did not have any surgeries, while my aunt did.
    Your body is the only home you have. How you treat it is up to you.

    Good luck to you!

  2. Is your daughter old enough to understand any sort of nuanced conversation about this? I am just asking because I have no idea, my daughter is only 2. But she didn’t even seem to notice when I came home from the dentist with half of my face swollen to twice its normal size.

    And thinking about this, I don’t honestly think there is any way to discuss your opinion of the topic without offending or hurting your sister in law. With an older child it might be easier to have a real conversation about, but I am imagining with a small child I would only divulge the necessary info “Aunty had surgery so she is going to be hurt in that area for a little while, and needs to rest”
    Your daughter doesn’t need to know that the surgery was elective because her aunt wasn’t happy with how she looked. And again I am just guessing, but that concept might be a little lost on her just now. You have her entire life to talk to her about beauty standards, social pressure, body positivity and so forth – this doesn’t necessarily have to be a teaching moment, particularly since it could be sensitive or hurtful to someone you both care about. For example, I am not going to talk about how high the rate of unnecessary c-sections is around my friend who just had a c-section – my academic ponderings aren’t going to help her or make her feel any more supported so I am just going to keep my mouth shut.

    • I like this! It lets the child really get to know the person of aunt without us putting any judgement on it.

      Like, I adored my aunt when I was a kid. She was only 15 years older than me, and I thought she was BEAUTIFUL! I thought she looked like a princess. The older I got, though, the more I realized that she really differed than my mom and the daily lessons that I learned about natural beauty and being myself. I finally figured out that my aunt caked on makeup and was really not that idealized person I had thought of growing up. I like that I was allowed to idolize her and also come to my own conclusions, later, about her style of being in the world…

    • In regards to your child not noticing your swollen face I think how observant a child is varies. Apparently when I was 2 I noticed and was upset by the fact that the Santa Claus we saw in a store had blue eyes, while the Santa we saw at a party had brown eyes, and I wouldn’t go anywhere near brown-eyed Santa (who apparently was being played by an acquaintance of parents who I did not like even when he wasn’t dressed up. I have no idea why.).

  3. how will your daughter know her aunt’s had surgery? I’d just make sure to ALWAYS love your own body so that your daughter sees a positive model.

  4. Life is large and varied. Your children are going to be exposed to a whole lot of stuff that isn’t the way you would do it. Fighting it off message by message is a losing proposition; you’ll fall behind too fast. Better to give her critical thinking and an evaluation framework.

    Critical thinking:
    That person made a choice. The choice was {precisely described choice}.

    There are tons of ways to evaluate choices, but these are some of mine.

    Did that choice hurt anyone else? Is there a reason that other person’s choice should be important to me? What was the originating impulse? Did that person feel better after making that choice? Did that person keep feeling better about it after time passed? Was there another way to make that choice that had some other good benefit?

    The set of questions your daughter uses to analyze choices will have a longer lasting influence than trying to limit her exposure to some different choices.

  5. As hard as it can be, I think it is best to deal with social issues and family relationships as two very different subjects. Otherwise, things will feel judgmental. Plastic surgery is definitely an adult issue that will probably just confuse your daughter and drive a rift in your relationship with her aunt.

    That said, you can do a lot to show your kiddo how awesome her body is. You can also talk to family about how you would like them to navigate this issue with you. They don’t have to agree with your ideas, but they need to respect you and your family.

  6. I think it depends on how your sister-in-law is going to react and talk about her surgery. Is she going to spend a lot of time in your daughter’s presence talking about how she looks so much better with the surgery? Will she air her insecurities around your daughter, talking down her body or discussing other work she wants to get? Will she make comments about your daughter’s appearance in the future, offering to help her “get pretty”? Because all of these things together will do more to effect your daughter’s self image than this one instance of plastic surgery. If you think that your SIL will talk about body issues with or around your daughter at any point, it might be worth having a conversation with her about what messages you want your daughter exposed to. Not surrounding the surgery, but just in general. With some careful thought, you can come up with a way of saying “I don’t want my daughter’s self-worth to be determined by her outside appearance.” without implying that your SIL’s choices mean that she DOES determine her self-worth by her external appearance.

    If you think your SIL will not discuss her body image issues around your daughter, or what the surgery was for, than I think you just leave it as “aunty had surgery, she’ll be hurt for a little bit, here’s how you can make her feel better” and save the why’s of the surgery until she’s older and can comprehend more.

  7. In our experience with our four-year-old, he’s never noticed when my sister has had any one of her various procedures done. She doesn’t talk about it with him, and as far as I know it hasn’t occurred to him that anything would be different about her. I think you could be surprised by what your daughter will and won’t want to talk about — if you aren’t in the habit of discussing your sister’s body with her, in my experience it’s likely your daughter won’t even care about a change.

  8. I would say: be prepared to answer any questions she asks honestly but simply, but that there is no need to volunteer the information that the procedure was elective, that it was because Aunty didn’t like the way she looked or that you don’t approve, especially since your daughter is so young. The issue may not even come up.

    Three seems awfully young to be thinking about body image issues to me and bringing it up seems like it would actually be counter to your goals.

    If it does come up, my suggestion would be to tell her that you love Aunty no mater how she looks, perhaps mentioning some of the character traits you value about her. This would show acceptance of both the old look and the new look and reinforces the idea that appearance is not what is important to you about a person.

  9. I think that everyone else here is right that the child probably won’t notice now, and may not ever realize about the surgeries, so it makes sense to mention the surgery only if necessary, and not the part about it being elective – at least not yet.

    Further down the road, if there are more procedures and you’re thinking about how to deal with them, I think that the idea of religion (or lack thereof) and how parents impart it to their children provides a good example. What you believe might be different from what other people believe, and that’s ok – not everyone has to believe the same thing. And (for even older kids) even though certain general things that other people believe can seem kind of silly or even harmful, and even though discussion about these issues is usually ok, it’s not ok to try to force other people to think like you – there are lots of reasons for people to believe things, and some of them are important to other people deep-down for their own reasons.

  10. It is important that we do things that make us feel powerful and beautiful. Sometimes we feel powerful and beautiful when we wear our super hero cape, or climb a really tall tree, or ace that test we were worried about. And sometimes we feel powerful and beautiful when we make our physical body match the image we have in our heads for who we want to be.

    We all have different priorities. Raise her with an emphasis on what you think defines power and beauty, but dont raise her to look down on other people for having their own definitions. Make it clear that there are many different ways to find this feeling (confidence), but let her choose which route most empowers her.

    • Absolutely THIS. Try not to teach your daughter that her physicality is any less a respectable and appreciated attribute than her intellect or talent. Teach her that being happy with her appearance how ever that means to her is whats important. As a very heavily tattooed woman I obviously dont subscribe to mainstream beauty ideals but I still think my physicality is an important part of who I am and I enjoy utilizing my appearance to gain confidence and comfort. I am as proud of my appearance as I am my intelligence. I find the time and effort I put into my appearance as a way of respecting my body and treating it as the valuable commodity that it is.

      Isolating appearance as insignificant can be as damaging as teaching a child that appearance is most important.

      Think of it this way. If a woman is born beautiful but is by nature not the most brilliant person, is it wrong for her to find confidence and balance in her aesthetic? Some might argue that that gift is less valid than more internal gifts. But we allow women who are born with what would be considered conventionally homely appearances to validate themselves via other attributes that they were born with, like talent or intellect. We all use the tools we are given. Telling a beautiful woman that her appearance is irrelevant is like telling a brilliant woman that her brain is unimportant.

      • “Telling a beautiful woman that her appearance is irrelevant is like telling a brilliant woman that her brain is unimportant.”

        Yes. My intelligence is just as much a fluke of genetics as my appearance. And they are both equally and significantly defining.

  11. I’m not sure I see this as a teaching moment. I think teaching a child to be comfortable in their own body and to value things other than looks is a life-long experience, and I don’t see much value in pointing to anyone who undergoes cosmetic surgery as a “bad” example or role model. I’d rather my daughter learn to love who she is through positive reinforcement instead. Some people do feel very insecure about a particular body part, and they feel a thousand times better once they just get that one little thing fixed. Is it what I would do? No. Would I judge someone else for that or tell them (or anyone else) that they made a mistake? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t even think of it as being a mistake. Ultimately, I would hope my child would be comfortable in her own body exactly as it is, but I don’t want to shame her into never covering zits with concealer, never wearing a push-up bra, or never undergoing elective surgery. If those things are what it takes for her to feel good about herself, and if she can do them safely, without harming herself or anyone else, and without forming a low self-image, I don’t see a problem with it.

  12. I didn’t see the point in telling a three year old “Aunt Suzy went to a doctor and got him to change her appearance. Mommy and Daddy don’t want you to grow up to do that.” Let’s be real, a three year old’s memory of Aunt Suzy’s pre-surgery look will be hazy at best. She won’t notice or care that Aunt Suzy has gotten a tummy tuck / breast lift / whatever else unless you go to the trouble of pointing it out. It just comes across as mean spirited to direct your child’s attention to the surgery

  13. While your intentions are great there is no garuntee, no matter how you raise your daughter, that the thought of plastic surgery still won’t enter her mind. My parents raised me just as you want to, yet here I am saving for a breast reduction. Not trying to stir the pot just saying thatall of the self esteem and self worth lessons in the world won’t be enough if she really wants to change something and has the means to do it.

  14. Keep in mind that kids that age are terrible at keeping secrets. They are prone to saying “I got a secret. Wanna hear ? Mommy said….” Think of how hurt your sister will feel if your child blabs your private conversation.

  15. Many comments focus on setting a good example for your daughter by loving your body and helping her love her own. She will also, one day, question, why her aunt did not love her own body and what motivated her to make a change. She may also, one day, have an interest in making a change herself. To me, the healthiest thing is to ensure that that change is internally motivated.

    For example, I lost 50 lbs. I’m very proud of it, I love looking in the mirror and at photos now and I love clothes shopping. But most importantly, I love how healthy I feel. The important thing is, I did it to please myself. Not because I felt I had to to please a person in my life or to please society as a whole. More superficially, if I’m ever in the financial position to do so, I’d like to have my breasts enlarged. Not because a fashion magazine thinks I should, but because I think I’d enjoy my figure even more.

    A healthy body image, of course, is important. So is change. Hopefully, you can help your daughter make decisions that will be healthy changes.

  16. I don’t think it’s important to talk to your daughter about this at this age. I think it is important to have your sister aware of and respectful of your stand on this issue. It’s not necessarily something you have to discuss in advance but it’s important to let her know if she does something you don’t agree with.

    • But really, why should the OP tell her sister “I don’t approve of you getting surgery” ? It’s her money, body and career. Unless the sister is verging on becoming the next Jocelyn Wildenstein, it would be cruel to voice disapproval.

      • No, she shouldn’t tell her sister that she doesn’t approve of her getting the surgery. I guess my comment was too brief.

        What she should do is, if her sister makes any “I’m fat” “I’m ugly” “I need to get X fixed” comments around her daughter, pull sister aside and ask her not say things like that in front of her daughter. Anything the sister wants to do with her own body is fine, but asking the sister to limit any type of negative body-image talk in front of her daughter should be the OPs main concern.

        • Ok, I totally want to do this with both of my sisters-in-law but on a philosophical level, is it really ok for me to expect them to change the way they engage the world and express themselves? What should my disagreement get to curtail the space they live in?

          I guess I’m trying to be sure that I’m following the golden rule. If they asked me to praise their daughters’ looks more or to stop reading so many books to them, how would I feel?

          • In the case of something I’d consider an unhealthy behavior, I think you have every right to expect your sibling to abide your wishes with your child while not asking you to compromise your beliefs.

            Another example, if you’re not a swearer and ask a friend not to swear around your children, that doesn’t mean you have to swear around their children just because they do. Or, more unhealthy, if you ask friends not to smoke in front of your kid, they’re unlikely to ask you to smoke in front of their children. Or drink.

            I’m all for walking a mile in another pair of shoes, but there are limits.

          • Why should your disagreement get to curtail how they express themselves? Because it has an impact on your child when they do it in the presence of your child. You don’t get to control how they behave and express themselves when your child isn’t around, but their influencing your child in ways that you don’t want absolutely IS something that you get to control.

            Regardless of how you’d feel, if they asked you to alter your behaviour around their child, you should do so in the way that you best feel able, and if you can’t, you discuss it with them so that they can choose to continue to expose their child to that.

  17. Well, you do need to mention that Auntie has had surgery in whatever language is appropriate to your child, just so that your kid doesn’t play too rough. We have not yet had an elective surgery in our family, but after my mother’s lumpectomy, we told our 3 year old that “Nonny has a big hurty on her chest, and you have to be very gentle with her, and only soft touches, and Nonny cant pick you up.”
    I don’t think you need to elaborate further at this time. If your daughter notices in the future, I think you should say something like “Auntie felt really sad about *the size of her breasts, tummy pooch, broken nose, facial birthmark etc.* , so she changed it.” and you can say you don’t know why your sister in law felt sad about it, but that she looks just as beautiful now as she did before.

  18. I feel like you’re making way too big a deal about this, and teaching your daughter to judge others in the process. If your sister-in-law feels good about her decision, it’s no skin off your bum. Short of telling her that aunty has an owie and to be gentle, I don’t think there’s any point in bringing it up.

  19. I think sometimes putting a focus on body image, even in a positive way, still puts an emphasis on how we look being a big deal. My niece is 3 and beyond thinking someone looks silly all bandaged up and giggling when i suggested putting bows on the bandages to make it fancier – she doesnt notice what people look like, just gets mildly annoyed when you cant play in the same way. I dont think mentioning image to a child that age can actually start them thinking about it when they probably werent before hand. But this is just my opinion and i dont have my own kids and dont know the things you have to deal with to balance out society’s pressures to look a certain way. its a hard thing to fight so goodluck.

  20. Thanks to everyone for all of your comments! They really gave me some great perspective. My daughter has been very interested in breasts lately, mostly because I’m almost 8 months pregnant and mine have become gigantic. They’ve become a daily topic of conversation. I assume that when I start breastfeeding, it will just continue on…just in time for her aunt to get her boob job. My guess is that my daughter will notice and ask how auntie’s boobs got so big but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

    I’ve tried to talk with the grandmothers and my SIL multiple times about how negative body talk affects kids from a very young age. It still happens, but I think they’re trying. Hopefully we’ll all get on the same page eventually. Until then – I completely agree that I can do a greatest amount of good by always being positive about my own body and praising my kids for what they ‘do’ more than how they look.

  21. I’d simply explain that this is a choice people are free to make. And maybe go into the reasons for electove plastic surgery and this kind of stuff… feeling good about oneself and such, and that one does not have to undergo procedures to feel this way, but that this is okay. Or something along the lines.

  22. Growing up my mother, aunts, and grandmother highly valued appearance to the point of surgery. I was raised to dress based on what’s ” in style” and never leave the house without makeup by both of my parents.
    I never wear makeup. I dye my hair because I prefer it, not because I think others will like me better. If I am wearing something that’s in style it’s because I liked it, not because I want to fit in.
    While I’m not comfortable with my weight now I’m not freaking out that I’m fat and developing a disorder. In high school I was one of the few with a healthy body image.

  23. I think this is a good topic to use to help your daughter understand that being pro-woman means being pro-women’s choices. (She’s young for this now, but in a few years, you can use this as a case in point.) Mom had babies and her body changed, and that’s okay. Those changes are a kind of beautiful, and her body is hers. Auntie had babies and her body changed, and she decided to change it back. She’s beautiful, and her body is hers.

  24. I applaud your principles of wanting your daughter to appreciate her body the way it is and not succumb to societal ideas of beauty. It’s something I myself hold very dear as the mother of two teenage daughters. Another principle I hold very dear and teach my children at every opportunity, is body ownership and autonomy.
    While your feelings about body modifications are held very sincerely, they are your feelings. Your sister’s body and the choices she makes regarding it, are not for you to express opinions on–positive or negative. They are hers alone.
    Withholding any kind of judgement on your sister will go a very long way toward teaching your daughter to own and defend the choices she makes with her body. Chances are, she won’t even notice the alteration to her aunt’s body, as kids that young just generally aren’t concerned with appearances. I’d caution you not to project your concerns onto your child. If she asks, I’d simply leave it as “it was a choice that Auntie made, just like how Mommy has a tattoo (piercing, dyes her hair, etc.). It is her body so she gets to make those choices for herself.”

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