The Parents Yap About Girls: How We Talk to Them and What It Says
All of us either have girls, are girls, or have, at one point in our lives, talked to girls. Is talking to a little girl - or any girl, really - any different than talking to a boy? Should it be?
We recently came across an article on the Huffington post that addresses exactly that. It got us thinking: do we treat boys and girls differently? Are they really different, besides in the obvious physical ways, of course? Are we perpetuating society's gender biases? And if we are, is that bad?
I have three children, two girls and one boy. I have never consciously treated my daughters differently than my son. When my girls were really little, I refused to dress them in pink and frilly clothes, I didn’t glue little bows to their wispy baby hair, and I didn’t buy them “girl toys” like Barbies or high-heeled dress-up shoes. They did eventually get those things, but only when they asked for them — I didn’t want to introduce those toys. They still aren’t “girly girls” but I do worry about how they will respond to social pressures to look a certain way. So far, my daughters seem unaffected by it, even though they notice that other girls seem to obsess about their own looks.
My girls are smart, strong, athletic, creative, and beautiful — and I tell them all of these things all the time. I have told them that they should “look their best” but that only means they should wear clean clothes and brush their hair from time to time. I will also compliment them on the way they look, but I think that helps to make them feel confident rather than focused on their looks above all else. If they were only complimented on how pretty they look and never admired for being smart or brave or kind or any of the other great qualities they have, then that would be a problem.
All of my kids are super-duper cute, but the one who has always received the most attention based on physical appearance is my son. He has the classic, golden-boy blond hair and sparkly blue eyes and round, peachy cheeks that every old lady always had to squeeze. Strangers stopped me in the supermarket to tell me my son should be a model, or to tell me that he will be a real heartbreaker when he grows up. It drives him nuts. He hates getting attention for something he has no control over, but he loves hearing what a great basketball player he is, or how nice he is to the little boy across the street.
During a recent backseat of the car game of “Would You Rather…” the question came up: “Would you rather be the dumbest kid in school or the ugliest?” All three of my kids said the same thing: “Ugliest.” When I asked them why, they all had the same answer. They said that the way you look changes throughout your life, but dumb is permanent. What you can think and do is more important than what you look like. Sounds like they will be just fine.
Tasha Schlake Festel
When I first had my daughter, I joined a new moms' group in Brookline. Every week, a group of 12 of us would get together with our newborns, make our babies scream through character-building tummy-time, and complain about being exhausted human pacifiers. We were all professional moms on maternity leave and considered ourselves fairly "with-it" and progressive.
We would dress our daughters in blue and let our sons play with dolls! We would have gender-neutral kitchen play-sets and make academics a priority! We would read to our kids from day one and use educational flash cards to distract them during diaper changes! We would never have princess parties or teach our sons how to fight. We would buck the system. We would raise kids to be who they were without the gender pressures of society!
We are modern moms, hear us ROAR! Stereotypes be damned!
One of the moms from the group that I had gotten close to had a son. He was as cute as could be and she was a riot. Incredibly smart and witty, we hit it off and planned to have our babies marry one day. You know, if they were both straight, and if they weren't, that was OK too. We would love them no matter what.
Unfortunately, my friend and I drifted apart as our maternity leaves ended. But one of her quirks that I adored sticks with me today. Whenever she complimented my daughter on being cute, she immediately followed it with, "...and you're also so good at math and science!" She was very aware of not focusing on just appearance. It seemed silly at the time, but I find myself thinking about that a lot when I give a compliment to a child.
When a kid is super cute, it's hard not to say it. Appearance certainly isn't everything, but it's something. There is no doubt that life is easier for the attractive than it is for the ugly. I'm not saying it's right or wrong. It just is. Like Regina, while I don't focus on my kids' appearance, I do stress that they be presentable - clean, hair that has been brushed in the last 8-12 hours, seasonably appropriate clothing in the ballpark of coordinated, etc. My standards are pretty low. Sadly - or perhaps thankfully? - peer pressure is starting to kick in. I say "sadly" because innocence is lost. I say "thankfully" because my 9-year-old daughter now brushes her hair and has finally branched out from yoga pants. Perhaps there are benefits to societal pressures.
Oh, shoot! That's not really the conclusion I meant to draw. What I meant to say is that it's not just girls that get the stereotypical gender stuff. Boys get it too. I know my son is always asked about sports, not about academics, or reading, or art, or anything else. It's always sports. Sure, he's an athlete, but at 7-years-old, there's certainly more to him than how many baskets he got in the last game.
My daughter is ridiculously tall. By "ridiculously" I mean she's in third grade but the size of a 13-year-old. Her height is often the first thing someone talks to her about. "Wow! You're so tall! Are you the tallest kid in your class? Are you taller than all of the boys? I bet you're a great basketball player! Is it hard being so much taller than everyone around you? Do you ever feel self conscious about your height?"
Um, yeah. Thanks, jerk. She wasn't until now! How 'bout you keep your mouth shut and go create emotional baggage and future eating disorders for someone else's child? Sheesh!
In reflecting on this week's topic, I asked my daughter if that conversation bothered her. She said, "No. Well, sometimes. Yeah, kinda. I get a little sick of it. Sometimes I'm like, can we talk about something else now? I like being tall, but I don't like talking about being tall." What I worry about, however, is the subliminal message it's sending: She's big. She's different. She shouldn't like that.
I guess the lesson of all of this is that there's more to kids - to anyone - than the one dimension that's most apparent. Yes, this should be obvious to all of us, but we sometimes forget. I'll try to remember to say something more meaningful to kids than the usual niceties. But I'm sure I'll forget.
And when I do, I'll try not beat myself up about it. As a successful and confident woman who knows there's so much more to me and to life than being reasonably attractive, I won't lie. I love to hear that someone thinks I'm pretty. And really, what kid wouldn't? We just need to follow that up with something of substance.
After our first son was born, I read an article about the role of praise in building healthy self-esteem in children. The basic premise was that to give kids general praise by saying such things as, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so cute!” or “What great artwork!” were not nearly as effective or valuable as more specific praise. Now, we all have been met with a piece of “art” from a happy, proud toddler, only to grasp for something positive to say. I found the article’s advice of finding something specific to praise—like a color scheme, or shape configuration, or the effort expended—to be very helpful, and my husband and I have always tried to follow that guideline for praise. Now, my in-laws were over the moon with joy for their very first grandchild, and the volume of praise coming from them was admirably copious. No one could ever accuse them of insincerity, but they were going a little overboard with the “You’re so smart,” comments. As we reached a point where our son started to tell us just how awesome and smart he was, I decided to ask my in-laws to adopt our approach to kid-praise. I admit that part of the motivation was to try to help our son to avoid becoming “bully-bait,” were he to go around telling everyone how smart he is.
I don’t need to criticize with Lisa Bloom’s article, but I found myself asking why she felt she needed to cease complimenting little girls on their appearance to give proper weight to the other, less superficial parts of her. Why not just tell her how cute she is before you ask her about sports or school or her ninja lessons? There is nothing wrong with complimenting a girl (or a woman) on her appearance. It’s affirming! The problem—if there is one— is when appearance is the only thing anyone ever focuses on when speaking to a little girl. Otherwise, each person is going to interact with her in accordance with their own priorities and values, and some variety is inevitable. I can imagine that similar damage could be done to a little girl’s psyche if the only thing the people around her valued was her athletic ability or some other specific trait or talent.
As a general rule growing up, I did not struggle with self-image issues or gender pigeon-holing. I came from a very conservative household, but that did not make it a house where “demure and de-lovely” were my only sanctioned goals. My parents and siblings were always supportive of whatever I set out to do. I suppose I never set out to do much that was truly revolutionary, but I did plenty that wasn’t exactly commonplace in our family. I guess my point boils down to the fact that my parents were able to convey to me their love and support, and that was enough. That, and a hard-headed resourcefulness that really embraces a can-do spirit.
People need to be nurtured and encouraged to do and to be their best, be they girls, boys, men or women! If we are treated as a valuable whole, therein lays the stuff of a healthy self image and a wide open horizon of possibility.
Julie Keysor, guest post
“Hot” rather than “Smart”? As a middle-aged mother of two girls, ages six and seven, the only “hot” I get these days is a flash of peri-menopause which is right around the corner. “How to Talk to Little Girls,” by Lisa Bloom, reminds us that our words and actions have a big impact on children. Do our words grow girls more interested in glamour than intellect because of how we treat them during their early formative years? Sure, makes sense. Luckily, we haven’t gotten too much of the “You are so cute! Show off that dress with a cute spin!” stuff. When it does happen, my husband is quick to get them playing in dirt or digging in the garden or putting on the least frilly thing the child owns.
Yes, the intellectual growth of our young girls would benefit from lots of questions from their mentors (a.k.a., parents). Don’t we hear that from their teachers? Hand-outs sent home from school even provide structure for the parents to ask the questions! Do we take the time to ask? Do we ask enough?
My folks, while not teachers, made tremendous contributions to their work and raised two wonderful children. Okay, perhaps I’m biased on that one... I think my parents and grandmothers (both my grandfathers died before I was born), verbally and in actions, showed me I can be independent, strong, and successful. Just this morning, as a birthday greeting, my father sent me a message saying how proud he was of me. My mother has been one of my primary mentors—both professionally and personally in relation to my kids, marriage, and family—for as long as I can remember.
I remember fond discussions with my grandmothers—one very into politics (which she generally felt was a pathetic system) and one very much into sports, community, and cooking. Both were teachers, and each made a difference in her community. Right before my one grandmother died, she mailed me four, cheap, wooden trinkets that her brother stole many, many years ago. Her comment to me was, “I was with him. Back then women couldn’t speak up against men who did things that were wrong. Now women can. Always remember, speak up for what is right.” My grandmother was involved in desegregation of the Milwaukee school system. She crossed picket lines into all-black schools to teach reading and English using the local newspaper.
It’s nice to get the compliments: “You are adorable! You are beautiful! You have beautiful brown (blue) eyes!” It makes people feel good and feeling good about themselves is a good thing. But there is plenty of time to role model other more important things to our kids—using the mind, giving to the community, playing sports, and being kind. When the TV comes on our home, my choice-- and now the girls’ choice-- is a women’s professional sporting event. My comments to the kids are “Wow, look how strong that player is!” or “It’s so awesome to see women playing that sport so well!” Last night, after these comments, both kids hopped to the floor and did twenty push-ups!
Yes, we have too much vanity in our society. And yes, a greater attention to developing the intellect of our girls is important. As parents, we are their teachers—their mentors—of the kind of people they will become. Give them lots of positive comments on their intellect, athleticism, volunteerism, and school and community spirit and we can’t go wrong. ‘Okay,’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘yes, but there really isn’t that much time for all those compliments...’ Oh yeah, if I stopped yelling, I would have at least an extra hour in the day!
Thanks so much to Julie for her guest appearance this week! Melissa felt that as a mother of all boys, we needed another voice to fill out our column this week.
You may have noticed that Paul Simpson has been missing. Sadly, he has moved on from The Parent Yap. We will miss his insight and wit in our column, but wish him the best with his exciting professional plans. We hope to hear from him in the comments and in an occasional guest post.
With this loss, comes an opportunity. We have a new Parent in the wings and look forward to her joining us next week, but we are looking for one more contributor to fill our panel. If you're interested in joining us, please contact our fearless editor, Bill, or any one of us. We'd love to talk to you about you, us, and how we can work together.
Thanks in advance for your interest.