What Susan Boyle Means for Parents: It’s Not Pretty; It’s Beautiful

By Christopher Byrne

For a week now, the world has been buzzing about the performance of Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent.” If you haven’t seen it, and I can hardly believe anyone hasn’t. She has become an overnight video sensation, a staple on talk shows, the kind of instant star that our culture creates. With her beautiful performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables, she became a global topic of conversation, an inspiration to more than 26 million people on YouTube alone, and a topic of bloggers all over the world.

Me too.

And, of course, given the nature of the blogosphere, everyone has a perspective on it. We need the Susan Boyle’s not just for their talent, but to start culture-wide conversations. The Internet is unifying human experience the way that television did. On one level it speaks to the passing of the technology torch to a new, virtually instantaneous medium that links us all, giving masses of the world’s population the access to something in hours.

The conversation Boyle has inspired is bias and our surprise that someone who is appealing but not movie star gorgeous could touch us so deeply. The media, and the online world, are full of commentary on the shallowness of judging people by their appearance. But why should we? Ms. Boyle entered a singing contest, not a beauty contest. It’s the music that comes out of the package that matters. People in the music business know this. Auditions for most orchestras happen behind a screen so appearance is taken out of the consideration.

But here’s where I think this has relevance to our kids. How often do we hear, “She’s not pretty, but she has a wonderful voice.”  Or, “He’s not very attractive, but he’s an academic prodigy.”

Our hierarchy of values places appearance at the top of the list. To be fair, we see someone before we know anything else about them, and our reptile brains make pre-conscious decisions about what we see. We can’t help that, but we can go beyond that. Susan Boyle shows us that the visual is only one piece of information about a person, and when we make judgments on that level alone, we may miss something—a lot as it turns out.

Every child has heard, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” And yet we do.  It’s a natural human behavior, and we’re not going to change it. What we can do is encourage the children in our lives—and ourselves—to look deeper, to see what each person has to offer. Allowing children to evaluate a person no more deeply than an initial reaction to appearance does them a horrible disservice. It allows them to form opinions on the most superficial levels. When we do encourage kids to take the time to look into others more completely, we go a long way to fostering deeper appreciation of everyone in ours and our kids’ lives, and it makes such childhood disasters as bullying less possible. It’s hard to be mean or dismissive to someone you know and care about. (At the same time, we set the intellectual stage for looking into anything beyond just our superficial, emotional and pre-conscious response.)

In Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim places the artist Georges Seurat in a park in Paris with his mother. They are bemoaning that the world is changing, that it doesn’t look like it did. The mother laments that what is new isn’t “pretty.” Not to her, at least. Seurat replies. He sings:

“Pretty isn’t beautiful, mother.
Pretty is what changes.
What the eye arranges
Is what is beautiful.”

And there I think is what we can teach our children. What we now know about Susan Boyle from the myriad interviews we’ve now seen and begun to know—her incredible voice, her devotion to her family, her simple honest expression and her lovely, good humored sense of herself—makes her beautiful. Ironically, all the media exposure doesn’t really let us know her any more than a look at her appearance does. She becomes beautiful, when we see the wonderful things in her and long for them in ourselves. And, honestly, it hasn’t taken much to get there. Just a little bit of looking.

And that’s the thing: We have to look for beauty. Pretty is obvious and unavoidable. Standards of prettiness change with fashion and time.

As Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

Beauty is both less easy to discern and calls on much more of us—and its perception demands a deeper investment from us. It helps us define who we are as individuals and bring us closer to our hearts and the people in our lives. Given the shared joy worldwide that Susan Boyle has inspired, don’t we want to teach our kids to do that? Don’t we want to that for ourselves?

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