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A friend of mine has twins who are 6 years old, one boy and one girl. She started noticing even when her children were toddler that the compliments her twins received from friends, family members and even strangers differed quite a bit.
Her son, for example, is complimented for being a fast runner. He’s been told he was a “good, protective” brother and that he was especially smart because of his ability to name so many types of dinosaurs.
But my friend noticed that her daughter received much more superficial compliments, which zeroed in on the little girl’s appearance. Well-meaning people gushed over her little girl’s curly hair and adorable outfits rather than how well she could dribble a basketball or how great she was at reading at a young age.
My friend’s strategy was to politely thank those acknowledging and praising her children, but ask that they compliment her daughter for her talents and character, rather than her appearance.
How we frame compliments and talk to young girls matters when it comes to body image and confidence, experts say. Our society’s hyper-focus on beauty is harming young girls, according to Renee Engeln, a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University. In her book, “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women,” she cites data that shows more than one-third of 5-year-old girls deliberately restrict what they eat at least “sometimes.” Twenty-eight percent of these girls say they want their bodies to look like the bodies of women in movies and on TV.
During her TED Talk Engeln said: “Your body is not for looking at; it’s for doing things.”
Powerful words. So, how do we change the conversation with our daughters so that we build their self-esteem, rather than knock it down?
Here are some tips from experts.
1. Try This “Body Gratitude” Exercise
In her book, Engeln explains an exercise that helps women feel more gratitude toward their bodies (instead of the usual harsh criticism we usually reserve for our bodies). You can encourage girls to do it, too.
Here are some prompts.
I use my arms to __________.
My body helps me to __________.
I love that my body can ___________.
My legs allow me to __________.
My body feels strongest when _________.
Doesn’t that feel better than cataloguing your “flaws”?
2. Stop Telling Little Girls They’re Pretty
Engeln admits this sounds counterintuitive in the context of building confidence. But when she explains why we should avoid telling little girls how pretty they are, it makes a lot of sense.
“Don’t tell them they’re ugly. Don’t do that, either,” she said, joking with the crowd at her TED Talk. “But every time you feel compelled to comment on a little girl’s appearance, consider complimenting one of her other many lovely qualities.”
Here are some other traits Engeln suggests narrowing in on:
- hard work ethic
“When you do that, you undermine the system that teaches girls their best bet for social status is the pursuit of beauty,” Engeln says.
The idea here? Try to raise daughters who see their appearance as a minor side note to their character and their hard work.
Watch Engeln’s TED Talk below:
3. Careful With Your Compliments
It’s best to direct praise away from appearance. Anea Bogue author of “9 Ways We Are Screwing Up Our Girls and How We Can Stop” and the creator of REALgirl, an empowerment program for girls, told Child Mind Institute it’s important to balance compliments about a girl’s appearance with compliments about what she does in the world.
“Challenge yourself to match every compliment you give about your daughter’s appearance with at least two compliments about something non-appearance based, and do the same for other girls who cross your path—your daughter’s friends, nieces, etc.”
4. Tell Girls You Believe In Them
Don’t just assume your daughter knows that you believe in her, says Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles. You need to tell your daughter you believe in her, says Hurley, author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.
In a column for PBS, Hurley points to a study that was published in Science that found girls as young as age 6 tend to think of “brilliance” as a male trait. The research also found that by age 6, girls steer themselves away from activities that they think are for the “really, really smart” kids.
So, does this have you re-thinking the way you’ll talk to your daughters? Do you have any tips for boosting young girls’ self-esteem?