Dear Abby, You Missed This by a Mile

Re:Lost For Words In Florida’s letter to Dear Abby from The Beacon News on November 28, 2009.

Dear Abby weighed in with a genuinely TERRIBLE answer which caused one of our staff to react:
Are you kidding? “Stop trying to have an adult conversation with an 8-year-old”???? On what planet is an 8-year-old incapable of having a rational and intelligent conversation?? Since when did being 8 automatically make you a moron??

The Original Dear Abby Q & A is as follows:
Dear Abby: My 8-year-old granddaughter has posed a question that stumped me, and I hope you can help with an answer: Why be neat and well-groomed?

She doesn't care what people think of how she looks. She sees no problem wearing clothes that are torn, etc. I am concerned that by the time she reaches adolescence she won't care how she looks when she leaves the house.

Her hair is extremely curly. It can't be combed or it gets wilder and frizzier, which adds to her unkempt appearance. Her hair may improve as she gets older if she's motivated to spend the extra time.

I am challenged by her question. How can I answer her? -- Lost For Words in Florida

Dear Lost For Words: Please stop trying to have an adult conversation with an 8-year-old. Where is this child's mother? Why is she permitted to go around in "torn, etc." clothing? It's time to talk to your son or daughter about helping their child with her grooming. The way your granddaughter looks is not only a reflection on herself, but also the adults whose responsibility it is to care for her. While she may not care how she looks, her parents should.

Children’s Advocate Roger Hyde gave the following alternative to Abby:
The Case of the Girl With Problem Hair:

Start by listening to the child, how it looks as HER problem:
*She doesn't care about others' opinions about her looks.
*She wears torn clothes, etc. without concern.
*She has "extremely curly hair" that defeats normal management.

Diagnose this with a crumb of objectivity from the child's perspective:

The things the "other kids" do to manage their appearance are not accessible to her. She has a daunting extra obstacle in the way if she wishes to keep up the median, regular standards of her group; and she has the apparent extra burden of having adults in her life who might have the resources to compensate for her inborn characteristics which might be unfashionable, but who blame the child for bad self management. We could make a case for that being child abuse.

The child is loaded with ostracism at school, etc. and blame at home. There's a recipe for optimism and healthy motivation, right? If you're an isolated, ostracized geek being proud of THAT seems like a decent and reasonable defense. I'll be ME and everyone else can be whatever they want. I'll just be me and wait until I get out of Duckville and find the swans who will embrace me as a beautiful one of them!

So what do we do to actually help the girl solve the problems? Give her good information and the resources to act on change.

It seems that the hair is a crucial issue and would be a key symbol of empowerment if she were given support to manage it. Hair is malleable in skilled hands. It can be made to do what people want. Try a couple of hairdressers, call a local beauty college: get the tools that are correct for the task. Help the child do this. We do not expect children to choose their own schools and doctors. Find competent help for the child.

The fact that the girl feels defeated is a reasonable response: she HAS BEEN DEFEATED in the task of managing the look of her hair. Once she has been given (repeat: GIVEN!) the means to cope with this, there is the matter of giving her the chance to choose to use the tools as others do. She will be motivated in a healthy way ONLY by seeing the attraction of being able to use the tools: She can Look the way SHE wants to look, when she wants. She can use the communication devices of looking casual, formal, fetching, aloof, practical,.... at her own discretion. Everyone of every age understands social power and its value. She will not neglect this if she is offered it as a choice she can make. If she is lectured about her duty to conform, the healthy thing probably is to refuse to submit to being a puppet of the adults. Let them dress themselves up if THEY want.

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