“I want to apologize to all the women
I have called pretty
Before I’ve called them intelligent or brave
I am sorry I made it sound as though
Something as simple as what you’re born with
Is the most you have to be proud of when your
Spirit has crushed mountains
From now on I will say things like
You are resilient or you are extraordinary
Not because I don’t think you’re pretty
But because you are so much more than that.
“What a pretty dress!” “You look so beautiful!!” “Look at those perfect curls.”
How often do we dish out compliments to girls based on their appearance? I do it all the time. We mean well - we want to build up their confidence. Make them feel beautiful before they enter a world of ruthless comparison. We may do it for the right reasons, but when we overemphasize looks we unintentionally send girls the message that these are the qualities that give them worth, rather than their intelligence or leadership traits. I’m not proposing we never talk about appearance but shift our flattery at least twice as often to focus on intrinsic qualities. Let’s help girls build a quiet inner confidence that is unshakeable and unbreakable. Let’s set them up for a future of strength and self-assuredness with less need for constant, superficial approval from others.
I attended a seminar recently led by Developmental Specialist, Aileen Jackman. She started off the session by asking, “Do you remember a time when someone said something to you as a child that negatively affected you?” In a room full of women every example was related to physical appearance - no comments were related to a skill, intelligence, or abilities to accomplish something. I’m guessing this experiment would have gone differently in a room full of men.
So how do we change the conversation? How do we take the focus away from looks while still ensuring girls grow up confident?
- Focus on effort and process-oriented praise, rather than product-oriented. Make a conscious effort to balance out compliments on your little one’s looks with twice as many compliments on what she does. Point it out when you notice she worked hard to complete a task or project or came up with a creative solution to a problem.
- Model self-acceptance. Our most relentless critics are almost always ourselves. Next time you go to make a comment about what you look like or how much weight you want to lose - remember who is listening. Instead of making negative comments about what you look like, talk about the healthy habits you’re focusing on, like exercising or eating fruits and vegetables. Celebrate what your body is capable of. In over-complementing our children on their appearance, we may be unintentionally communicating our own insecurities. Practice more self-compassion so the inadvertent messages you send are positive ones.
- Encourage skills and activities that are independent of appearance. Sports are a great way to build confidence around developing a skill. If your little one is more creative and interested in playing an instrument or dreaming up stories and writing, foster that. Celebrate her unique gifts and individuality so she feels accepted for who she is, not just what she looks like.
- Provide examples of women you admire for their spirit or strength. Read books together about women who faced adversity and prevailed or accomplished amazing things to change the world. Television and social media provide a plethora of princesses, damsels in distress, and girls whose primary concern is what they look like. It’s up to us to supply examples of the qualities we want our children to value in themselves.
- Allow your child to solve problems on her own. We don’t get self-confidence from being told what a great little girl we are or from having others solve our problems for us. Self-esteem comes when we overcome obstacles on our own, establishing a strong sense of competence. By letting our children know we are there if they need support but are not going to solve problems for them, we send the message that we know they are capable of meeting challenges themselves and don’t need rescuing.
The difference in the way we treat girls and boys begins at a young age. Girls are typically given dolls or encouraged to play house, while we give boys Legos and blocks to build with. According to the US department of Commerce, women filled 47% of all US jobs in 2015 but only held 24% of the science, technology, engineering, and math jobs. If we begin to be more mindful about the subtle messages we send, we can start to change the script. With more thoughtful compliments our girls will grow up less concerned with what they look like and have more time to focus on everything else they bring to the world. We don’t need to stop communicating to girls they are pretty - but rather emphasize the fact that they are so much more than that.
Casey Hardigan was born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She moved to Atlanta in 2013 where she discovered her passion for teaching and Early Childhood Education. She received her Montessori teacher certification with the Pan American Montessori Society and began working at the Suzuki School as a preschool teacher. She is now the Assistant Director at the Suzuki School Ponce City Market campus.