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A Smart, Helpful, Surprising Way To Talk to Little Girls
It happens at least once a day in one way or another. Yesterday it was someone on the street. "Look at those blonde curls! Those huge blue eyes! I love your tutu! Aren't you a little doll!?" the well-meaning lady screamed at my toddler, who was lounging in her stroller wearing her favorite floofy "dancing dress."
"No," my daughter said, confused by the lady's baffling mix-up. "I’m a pewhson."
I was as pleased with her response as I was turned off by the stranger's greeting. It always makes me feel weird when people talk to my daughter about how pretty she is. She is, after all, a pewhson. I mean, like every child her age, she is adorable. And she likes to dress herself in frilly pink dresses and strings of beads and my one pair of heels she deems dress-up-worthy, and then she likes to twirl in front of the mirror and pretend she's a fairy. And of course I want her to feel good about herself, and to feel beautiful. So why don't I like that automatic "You’re so pretty!" people are always cooing into her (pretty) face? Aren't they just being nice? Luckily writer Lisa Bloom is smarter than I, and put her finger exactly on just what is wrong with greeting a little girl by saying "Oh, you’re so pretty!"
In her recent piece in the Huffington Post, Bloom, author of the book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, points out, "teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy." (She goes on to explain what's missing in these princess-interactions)
Her article really got me thinking about how important the way we talk to kids is—particularly when they are so young that we largely control their exposure to the world. And the media. My kid doesn’t know that there’s a whole family of hot ladies called Kardashians who are famous for being sort of, you know, hot and famous. I mean, she hasn’t even fallen down the Disney princess wormhole yet, thank goodness. It gives me a cold chill to realize some day she will actually be out in this appearance-obsessed world of ours. But for now, by far the biggest influences in her life are the grown-ups she talks to, and the way they talk to her. So how can I talk to her, and her diminutive friends without diminishing them (while writing this I’m realizing that I actually say “I love your outfit!” to little girls ALL THE TIME)?
Bloom offers some advice: "Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she's reading.... Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.”
It called to mind the 2009 book Nurtureshock, in which Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman suggest that the way we praise our kids can actually damage them. The basic idea is that it’s more helpful to communicate that good results come from hard work rather than from inherent smarts or talent. In other words, when we let ourselves spew conversational pablum like “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so pretty!” we send our kids the message that the best things about them are the things they can’t help, so they might as well just stop trying to change or do better or be dimensional people.
Not only that, but that kind of talk is simply lazy and uninteresting. In Bloom’s essay she recounts a conversation she had with a friend’s (adorable) 5-year-old (what she did to get the kid to light up and respond enthusiastically was genius). It reminded me that saying “You’re so pretty,” doesn’t (contrary to what goony guys in bars may think) start a conversation; it ends it. What can you say? “Uh, thank you?” But asking about a child’s interests, encouraging her to discourse like an actual person--that starts a dialogue. And it makes a girl feel like, not a doll, but a person.
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