‘That’s so adorable!’: The curse of cute

You’ll have seen a lot of it on Facebook. Advertising for a PD course, or a new centre, or a consultant. There’ll be a bit of text, overlaid over a large image of a child doing something “cute”. Maybe the child is wearing a small suit, sitting behind a desk. So cute! Maybe they’re in a pilot’s uniform, holding a steering wheel. How adorable – they’re pretending to be fly the plane!

They’re easy to find and eye-catching to use. I’ve used one as the image for this article! I’m sure they drive a lot of “clicks” and “hits”. I’m sure they’re effective for marketing particular products so people can make a lot of money.

But every time I see it, I wonder what messages are being sent – what are we saying about the sector, about ourselves, and about children?

The concept of “image of child” is now a relatively well-known one in the early education and care (ECEC) sector. To summarise in a big way, it’s about the internal philosophy that you carry within you about children. This affects how you think about children, how you interact and engage with them, and how you discuss them and represent them.

The Educators Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework asks us to reflect on our own values and assumptions about children:

In what ways are your images of children and beliefs about how children learn and develop influencing what you do to support children’s learning and development and the goals we set for them?

The Early Years Learning Framework, p. 15

Your image of child might be that children are dependent and not capable of very much. Your planning for children’s learning would correspond with that – your role as an educator would be to do things for them, to help them with everything.

Your image of child might be that children are confident and capable from birth, with abilities, strengths and skills that you can learn from. Your planning for children’s learning would correspond with that – your role as an educator would be to acknowledge and develop strengths, to learn more about the child and to support them to demonstrate and strengthen their confidence and capability.

I’m often surprised by how many organisations and individuals who, on one hand, I see talking about positive and respectful representations of children – and then utilise an image like the one on this article to advertise a product or a blog post.


Does “cute” really cut it as a positive and respectful image of child? Are we celebrating children’s strengths and capabilities if we reduce them to being “adorable”? If we’re laughing at an advertisment featuring a child – “oh look, she’s pretending to do some work on the laptop!” – what are we actually saying about that child?

Is it really OK, and does it represent a positive image of child, when we use children’s images in such a way? Would we be OK if an image of us was used in the same way? If you had a photo taken to be used in marketing, would you want it to be seen as professional and respectful of you as an individual? Or would you be OK with people grinning and saying how adorable you look, and how cute you are? “Oh look, she’s pretending to be a teacher!”

As adults, we have a lot of control over how our images can be used. In most cases, we have to give written permission for a photo of ourselves to be used – especially in marketing. We have the right to see how that photo might be used, and we can withdraw our consent at any time. Do children have those same rights? Do you believe they should have?

It goes beyond marketing. Many services engage in end-of-year “graduation ceremonies” to mark the transition to a new room, or to primary school. Children are dressed up in mini pretend caps and gowns, and given a kiddy-version of a certificate. Families are invited to snap pictures. “Oh she’s so cute!”

A graduation is meaningful to an adult who has completed the amount of study required to receive the certificate, that has a determined meaning in our community. The cap and gown are a traditional part of this ceremony dating back hundreds of years. Do we really have a reason to do a “mini-version” of this event, that has no meaning to children and their daily experiences, beyond “it looks cute”?

By all means, celebrate an important transition for children. Changing classrooms or moving to another educational institution is a big deal for children, and it should be acknowledged. But why can’t it be acknowledged in a way that is meaningful for the children, not the adults in the room?

We also need to think beyond the impact on children. How do these kinds of images portray the ECEC sector, and uphold our sense of professional identity? Again, I get whiplash when I’ll see one article or statement from an organisation talking about how important ECEC is and how critical it is that we take the work seriously, and then use “fun” and “cute” images in their next post about something else.

We need to remember that the rest of the community isn’t necessarily thinking about big-picture issues like image of child. We know that the community mostly sees us as glorified babysitters, or “fun childcare” at most. If we play into that perception, we don’t advance the cause of professionalism at all. We entrench and embed it.

If we want to think about how we can better support our own professionalism, as well as standing up for the rights of children to be treated with respect, we need to think about the images we use and how we engage with them. Instead of “cute”, let’s try capable. Instead of “adorable”, let’s try creative. Children spend every day in ECEC services working hard at things, concentrating, learning new skills. Why can’t we see images of that if we need to use children’s images? Why can’t we show how serious the work in those services is?

And if the product you’re selling is for use by educators, maybe think about using images that promote educator professionalism. Children shouldn’t be props to sell things to the sector – instead of using “cute children”, imagine if we had a flood of images that showed professional, engaged and amazing educators working hard.

Those are the kind of images that can be worth a whole lot more than a handful more clicks.

This post was written for Karl Hessian, thanks to his generous donation to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

One reply on “‘That’s so adorable!’: The curse of cute”

I think you have some valid points, but I don’t find the image degrading, just the language that surrounds it. Early childhood centres are business’s and want an image to catch the families attention. These families donot necessarily have the training and education that Early Childhood Educators do, so it is vital to first grab their attention through marketing. Then educators can be an advocate for children as well as their profession. I always try to keep in mind that whilst children and their needs are the most important part of our job, families and their needs and culture come a very close second. There are certainly lots of different images that services can utilise, some better than others, but the language sets the scene. Replace the words ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’ with ‘authentic learning’ and ‘interest based’ for example and the picture tells a different story.

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