Stop Saying “Cute”: An Early Childhood Education Rant

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. and Gill Robertson, ECE. This post is the first of what I hope will be a series of co-authored blogs. This post is a rant and was inspired by words that rankle and undermine the view of ourselves as professionals and children as competent. “Cute” is one of those words. Recently, I saw an Instagram post featuring a children’s craft with the caption “How Cute is This?”. This came from an organization that is supposed to support our profession. However, the use of this word, undermines images. Some words need to be replaced. For example, rather than say, “field” we choose the word “profession”. Language matters and sometimes we don’t pause to think about certain words. For instance, what does the word, “front-line” staff conjure up? Do you see in your mind’s eye early childhood educators uniformed, armed and ready for battle? When this is unpacked, repacked and sent packing, we can say “working directly with children” instead as this reinforces a more appropriate image of the teacher. In conversation with Gill, we ranted on about going beyond “cute” and decided to write this post as an example of a word that matters. Meanwhile, Cindy Green suggested co-authoring a post about mindfulness. It is probably apropos that this post will follow the rant. After getting worked up over words, we will need some time for calm.

Vygotsky

The experience of writing together is a way to learn and grow in the understanding of the work that we do in early learning. What words rankle for you? We want to learn from you. It is through others that we develop into ourselves. If you have a rant or idea that could grow into a reflective blog post, add a comment about what it is you are thinking about. Perhaps you have a word that you want to unpack, repack and send packing! Today, we begin with “cute”.

Teacher Directed Craft

If following a Pinterest search or after opening a craft book, you catch yourself saying, “Oh we should so do this, it’s so cute” chances are you are missing the depth and value of the learning. Sadly, the word “cute” and crafts often seem to be in the same sentence. Comments such as “oh that would be so cute to do with the kids for summer”, could easily come before the production of a pile of identical or near identical crafts. If we stopped thinking about our work as the production of cute crafts, we would move forward in our profession. If you are still looking at the flip flop craft and thinking, “oh that’s so cute they will love it”, let’s pause and unpack. We wonder about what the children actually love. Is it their foot being guided into the paint and onto the paper? Do they love having their teachers cut their footprints out for them and then put on the strips of paper to represent flip flops and summer? Or do they enjoy the one on one time with an adult? Do they enjoy the “good job” they receive from the teacher? Do they enjoy feeling clever as they name a colour of paint? All of this can be learned in a less “cute” way.

Children looking for shapes

This picture isn’t a picture of children making a cute craft, but they are doing something! The children are looking for familiar shapes (letters are shapes), they are making comparisons and finding more of the same. People walked by when Gill was taking this photo and said, “aww how cute”. But cute is so shallow. Cute is often associated with looks. Children should be valued for more than how they look. We need to see more in each child than what is on the surface. We need to do more than compliment them on what they are wearing. Let’s start thinking about what we say and what we value. Back to the flip flops. Let’s take the example of fine motor skills, which incidentally are not an isolated skill. When children are given their own footprint cut out and then directed how to assemble it, we are dishonouring the image of the child as a competent and capable artist. The children may have the freedom to choose what colour gem to place in the middle but that doesn’t require much creative and critical thinking. For about three seconds they employ a pincer grip. If we took photos of the children holding up their flip flop pictures and then display them in a “cute” way that shows the children smiling with pride, what message is this sending to the children? Contrary to teacher-driven crafts, when we provide learning opportunities such as process art, transient art, and loose parts play it’s messy and appears disorganized, but it is full of learning opportunities.

Writing in the Dirt

This child here is getting filthy drawing and naming shapes in the dirt. He was not given a worksheet with a “cute” character requiring him to match shapes. The worksheet outcome would be a teacher/parent pleasing product rather than this real authentic hands-on learning.

Singing and walking along.jpeg

In this photo the children are singing at the top of their lungs and relating songs to what they see as they walk along. Think about this in contrast to a “cute” performance at the end of the year.

Making Soup

Here the child is engaged in pretend play. We could say, “Aww isn’t he sweet making soup?” but it’s so much more. Experimenting, stirring, lifting, balancing, gauging if the door will fall on his foot indicates what is hidden behind the cuteness. There is also fine motor practice as he is picking up the leaves to stir. Socially, he is sharing and engaging with others while using related words and language. So much more than just focusing on the cute – “isn’t it cute he made me a pretend dinner?”

Coffee, anyone?

It’s more than cute to be offered what feels like a millionth cup of pretend coffee. The science of volume and capacity is the deeper meaning. What about the thinking that occurred when he stopped just in time before it overflowed? He was building relationships, memories and language. Does he look cute? Yes, he does but cute is surface level, the learning is life long and deep. That’s our rant! Add yours here for a chance to co-author another post and reach the readers of this blog. We want to learn from you like we will from Cindy in the next co-authored blog post. Stay tuned to learn about mindfulness and being in the moment!

40 thoughts on “Stop Saying “Cute”: An Early Childhood Education Rant

  1. Thank you for this insightful posting. Highlighting “field” was a proactive act to continue to promote, suppprt and advocate for the profession. Word selection is indeed one step toward professionalization. But I wonder if this particular word also holds power to marginalized those working with young children as it has the ability to categorize female workers and disembody the profession. The “field” may be perceived as a place of collective understandings or lack of autonomy as female ‘workers’ view themselves as powerless. Does the field allow people to have a voice, share in the work or make decisions? Who is being left out in the field so to speak when we marginalize a profession through word selection? Are their voices being heard, honoured and valued?
    As for future collaboration, count me in as I “just” work with small children who have a right to be heard.

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  2. There is a comment that I have said previously and seen educators saying “oh nice, I like it” when the children show one of their play!! I feel this comment is so vague because, we are telling the kids that “I approve, it is good “ and it is all about the teacher liking it. We are missing an opportunity of a rich conversation with children about their learning skills!!

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    • I agree with you. When a child ask, “do you like . . .?” I turn it back to them: “more important do you like . . .? And what is your favourite part of . . .? Would you like to change or add something.” Have the child look at their creation and think critically about it.

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      • I say exactly the same! I want them to realise that their opinions matters most and that it’s not about pleasing anyone else.

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  3. I am also someone who tries to pay attention to language. It’s a process and also honesty in a reflective practice. In reading your paragraph about what ‘lies beneath the surface of the activity’ I think of “What is truly important is invisible to the eye.” Actually not invisible to the eye, but perhaps not present in the lens of the mind’s eye and the deconstruction of this in the mind. This requires a strong familiarity with the skills and mental processes the child is utilizing at any given moment. It requires ‘observation’ rather than looking. And as you mentioned, maintaining and honoring an image of the child. As professionals, refraining from the use of adjectives like ‘cute’, ‘sweet’, ‘smart’, and the one I abhor the most “good job” (read Alfie Kohn for research and data on that one) and replacing them with objective observation/information, we do justice to the child, and also elevate an understanding of the child with whomever we are speaking.

    Side note: At our “Parent Night”, after about a 1/2 -3/4 hour engaged in exploring the materials in the classroom, we deconstruct with them, asking what developmental skills they were utilizing. We hear many ‘ahas’ as they list the interplay of the numerous social-emotional, motor, cognitive and problem solving skills. For educators/child minders who find themselves using surface adjectives, this might be a good exercise to fine tune awareness of the multiplicity of skills being utilized at any given moment . . . and thus provide closer mental access to replacement language.

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  5. Loved this! We as adults get caught up in what we ‘think’ children will like to do, or an outcome that we see value in – like a ‘cute’ activity, that has no real value or learning for the child.

    Playwork has taught me so much about this. All adults need to hear this, not just early learning professionals.

    Coming from a landscape design background, it also bothers me how so many designers and clients get caught up in having ‘pretty’ environments, not ones that are actually good for the healthy development of the child.

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  6. “In this photo the children are singing at the top of their lungs and relating songs to what they see as they walk along. Think about this in contrast to a “cute” performance at the end of the year.”
    This quote really resonates with me. Recently we held a preschool graduation. The plan was a small ice cream party. Nothing formal like a group performance or ceremony. The kids just wanted an ice cream party with their parents. It was going to be outside with sprinkles and chocolate sauce. However given parent requests and their disapproval we eventually added the performance and the ceremony. It was not what the children wanted and felt comfortable with. The parents wanted the “cute” photos. In short, sometimes we give in to “cute” to satisfy parents requests and misunderstanding of emergent curriculum and put to the side, the childrens rights to decide outcomes. We need to believe that our decisions are professional and based on observation and building relationships with the children. Why do we question our decisions? I believe it’s because “cute” gives us instant parent approval. We must move away from “cute” so that we are are seen as professionals and not as baby sitters that need guidance and support from those outside our profession.

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    • Yes! Sometimes it is hard to push back but we can only keep trying to share what we know is best for our students! We did an end of year celebration and we did sing a song that had been a favourite all year but rather than get up and perform it as a group I just started singing during a slideshow of pictures from the year and most of the class joined in. It was awesome and allowed the parents who were there to see and hear their own child’s voice. I must admit I wasn’t intentional about this, just didn’t want to set aside time to ‘practise’ but I’ll be doing it again as it felt much more like how we really spend our days (I sing a lot and love it when students join in.)

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  7. Agreed, the language we use is so important, and old patterns can be hard to break. It takes mindfulness. A significant one for me has been ‘boys and girls’. Creating an inclusive environment in all aspects, ensuring each child who enters sees themselves in it, means being very aware of gender identity / expression and labels.

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  8. I’ve had this discussion on multiple occasions this past school year. Never, ever, should your reason for doing something with kids be, “it’s cute”.
    Everything we ornuncover with them stems from what they say and do. We need to put our agendas away.
    I’d also love to unpack the word, smart or bright.

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  9. Another word I’d like to see abolished in the early learning profession is “fun”! Yes, sometimes we do have fun but as educated professionals, our goal is deeper than this. Fun is a happy consequence of thoughtful responsive curriculum planning. Doing something because it is cute or fun diminishes the profession and seems a waste of thousands of dollars and hours on academic investments. Thanks for continuing this important dialogue Diane and Gill. A pleasure to read.

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  10. I like to use the word “interesting” when children share a story or show a creation. The word let’s chikdren know the educator gives value to what is being said or shown. The word “interesting” invites further discussion, comment and explanations. Let’s not just focus on the words that rankle but also on those that add, introduce and invite those words that we can add to our tool kit for use with children, families and colleagues.

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  11. Yes! And I hate (hate?, yes, hate!) when adults “cutify” kids by making them wear silly things on their bodies for performances or other occasions! YUK!

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  12. Thank you so much for this posting! I agree 100%! You have put to words so many of my frustrations. The fact that young intelligent children take the time to observe, comment, question, explore, discover, construct and create is so complex and demonstrates learning is fluid and should not be put in a box by terminolgy that devalues the complexity and intellect behind it. The term that really upsets me at times is “activity”. I prefer to use provocation or invitation because that leads to questions that lead to a discussion about the processes children go through as they are learning and discovery new and facinating things.

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  13. I have recently completed my final diploma prac and during my time there took videos of the chn and my interactions… Omg… I was amazed and horrified at the repetitiveness of my comments about chns learning and achievements … I found it very insightful and a harsh reality check about my interactions with the chn. I am definitely going to continue my critical reflections in this area and have it as an area of improvement.

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  14. I find that there are so many words that are overused in our profession. The one that really bothers me is referring to everyone in the room as “friends”. Children don’t always feel friendly towards the other children in their group – unless you are segregating them base on their behaviours.

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      • A number of months ago in the Reggio Emilia FB stream there was a mega discussion about “friends:. If interested you may be able to look it up

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      • I appreciate hearing all the different perspectives! We no longer refer to our students as girls and boys (making a distinction by gender). I am wondering if there is a collective term that people do use in their classrooms? I teach in a Quaker school, so often do use “friends” when talking to my students.

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    • I am in Kindergarten and try to talk about “friends and classmates” because they aren’t all friends but they do all have to work together at times.

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  15. Much thanks for your post. I always benefit from them, causing me to go deeper. What we do and say to children can have such lasting effects on them. Yes, I agree ‘cute’ has no place in their environment. I try to use dialogue that causes them to think about and expand their world…rise above the surface.
    I get frustrated with ‘outside the box.’ To me this implies we have already drawn a box…limits what we want to do..what they want to do. Simply saying go deeper as you have put it or ‘look at it a different way’suggests we have not drawn any limits anywhere. It implies many possibilities.
    Please keep your posts coming.

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  16. I am excited to read others awareness and thoughtfulness around the language that we use. One of the most offensive four letter words for me is KIDS. Thoughts?

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    • I use kids and children. My olds kids don’t like being referred to as “Children” However I dislike kiddos, little ones, my friends so and sos group.
      Along the same lines I like to be called by my first name Gill ,not teacher , Mrs Robertson or worse Miss Gill .

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  17. Thanks for this blog. It opens up conversations that are necessary to grow in our profession. Language has an important part of our professional practice to undermine as well as revealing our image of the child, family and educator. The words “cute, fun, and NO THANK YOU ,” are my rant words.

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  18. Dianne and Gill thanks for this thoughtful blog. These have been my thoughts too! Helping parents understand and see all the missed learning is difficult when they use sentences such as “ your painting is so beautiful, clever girl” or “ be good today”” or “ don’t be naughty”. How does this support the view of the child. Reframing language to be specific helps build real knowledge and understanding and build on what the child already knows.

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  19. Dianne and Gill thanks for this thoughtful blog. These have been my thoughts too! Helping parents understand and see all the missed learning is difficult when they use sentences such as “ your painting is so beautiful, clever girl” or “ be good today”” or “ don’t be naughty”. How does this support the view of the child. Reframing language to be specific helps build real knowledge and understanding and build on what the child already knows.

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  20. In 1996, there was an editorial in the Early Childhood Education Journal (Vol. 24, No. 2) called, “Why Cute is Still a Four-Letter Word”. I loved it and, in fact, still have the hard copy. When I interviewed people for teaching positions in our school, I always took them on a tour. If, after showing them the remarkable work children had done (like clay busts of themselves after having studied faces for two months), the teacher said, “So cute!” That was it. Not hired.

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  21. Yes, I agree on the language and literacy we use with children especially at an early age. One word that sends me in a rant is “smart”, oh you are so smart. To me this gives children the inclination that they know everything and must surpass their peers in everything. When the is challenged with something they are not familiar with or have not experience it sends them into a frustration mode or they shut down and feel disappointed in themselves. I use the word “knowledgeable” with children. When a child communicates what they know about a subject matter in discussion, I say to them “you have a degree knowledge on this subject, Would you like to share more.” This gives them a sense of openess to share and listen to others on what they may know through experiences. You do not have to attempt be a know it all, it will alleviate frustration and intentional disappointment. Share what you know.

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  22. I hate it when teachers call children by the names of their room for example Fantails it time to go inside or butterflies out or the sandpit please. I have also heard teachers refer to a child as sweetie. Please call them by their names

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  23. How about the word hate? I can see people’s objections to saying it about another person but I really do hate it when I stub my toe (for example) and I feel like we’ve tried to erase a word for the sake of making children be ‘nice’.

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    • Thank you! I too have issues with “learning styles” and “cover”! I can see why “good kid” would also be an issue. Learning styles are a myth! And you can cover curriculum/content all you want – it doesn’t mean any learning has happened!

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  24. Wide ranging discussion…whenever I hear the word “creative” I typically sense a lack of understanding of what objectives for an art project. “Oh that’s creative” means that someone sees that there is a goal but doesn’t know what it is…I dunno, it just seems lacking in clarity. As for the flip-flop project, I can not recommend strongly enough that everyone read “The School Art Style-A Functional Analysis” by Arthur Efland. Look it up, it’s from 1976 and frustratingly still relevant. All the art, all the same…why? This article nails it and has been a cornerstone reference for my entire career.

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  25. Excellent article and lots of food for thought.

    I actually have a huge issue with the use of ‘the fat controller’ in Thomas the Tank Engin – why does he have to be called fat? I know there is a ‘’thin’ controller too, but labeling them is where bullying and commenting on people’s appearances starts! Yesterday we were at a Thomas show and everyone had to yell out “ Hi Fat Controller” – I mean seriously, no wonder kids think it’s ok to name call! In our house, he is just ‘the controller’.

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  26. Your rant was very thought-provoking. I teach a 1/2 class through inquiry and a maker stance. Students are always making things and learning through the process, writing about their work to plan or communicate their learning. They still often come to me and say “Is this good?” or “Do you like it?” I try my best to just say “Tell me about your _______” rather than comment on it. It takes thought though to use this phrase…we have to unlearn how we’ve been responded to as students ourselves (and as adults…always comparing ourselves to others rather than to co-developed criteria or to a personal next step).

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  27. Pingback: On Being Mindful, Grateful and Joyful: It Matters! | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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