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A New Vocabulary: What We Say to Girls Matters

In honor of International Day of the Girl, Babble has dedicated a page to celebrating girls and giving them the tools to take control of their destinies and rise above stereotypes. Find out more here

“You look so pretty!” If you’re a woman, you’ve said this to a friend, a female relative or a co-worker, possibly countless times. And if you’re the mother of a girl, chances are you’ve said this to your daughter. I know I have, and recently, as I catch myself saying things to my daughter like, “You look really cute in that outfit,” something in me pauses. Do I want to be telling my daughter she’s cute – and even more specifically, that she’s cuter some days more than others depending on what she’s wearing? It’s not that complimenting her doesn’t feel right, it’s the implication that certain clothes can make her “better” than she is without them. Of course we’ve all seen enough makeover shows to know that the right outfit really can transform a person’s look, but we also want our girls to learn that they’re beautiful no matter what, right?

That’s the idea behind a new series of posters sponsored by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg featuring photos of tween girls from around the city that say, “I’m a girl and I’m beautiful the way I am.” I criticized the posters in a recent post, saying, “Though the campaign may succeed on the surface at challenging physical beauty ideals, it doesn’t question whether or not being “beautiful” should matter at all. We never see media that tells boys they should be “handsome” or “attractive,” but we have no problem telling girls from a very young age, like, 2 that they should be beautiful.”

I do think my daughter is beautiful (what mother doesn’t feel that way?), but I don’t want her to grow up preoccupied with her looks, wondering if she’s “good enough” based on how pretty she is or what she’s wearing. Fortunately for me, I don’t think I have to worry about that too much, because the other day when I asked my daughter to comb her hair, she said she didn’t need to because – and I quote – “My hair looks awesome because I look awesome, even if my hair is a mess!” The kid’s got moxie, that’s for sure.

So what should I say to my daughter about how she looks, or her behavior, or a myriad of other gender-sensitive issues? Does word choice matter? I think it does. Not that any of us should feel paranoid about irrevocably screwing our daughters up because we said something like “Good girl!” when they were being well-behaved. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to stop and think about the messaging we’ve received as girls who made it through childhood into adulthood and decide what we might like to change. Here are some messages I got growing up that I’ve re-examined while raising my daughter:

  • Instead of "skinny" use "strong" 1 of 9
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    Growing up, we all wanted to be skinny, and the Twitter hashtag #thighgapthursday is proof that girls still feel that way, to a dangerous degree. So when talking about bodies, tell your daughter that she's strong. Girls and women are used to being described as emotionally strong, but we are so physically strong, too! I mean, hello? We give birth!

  • Instead of "pretty" or "cute," try "great" 2 of 9
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    As I mentioned, when my daughter looks pretty, it's hard for me not to want to tell her, "You look so pretty in that outfit." But I've realized I don't want my daughter to think her self-worth depends on what she's wearing or how she looks, so I want to start saying instead, "That outfit looks great on you." It's still a compliment based on a particular set of circumstances, but it's about her and how what she has on showcases who she already is, and not the other way around. I know this one's nitpicky in a way, but I do think the slight difference could make a big difference overall.

  • Instead of telling your daughter she’s "nice," tell her she’s "kind" 3 of 9
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    A friend once told me, "Women get into all kinds of terrible trouble trying to be nice." Ironically, the word "nice" has many connotations that aren't very nice at all! We can use "nice" to describe someone who seems a bit fake or shallow. Being nice can be about being polite and doing the right things out of obligation, not because a person really wants to do them. But being kind, on the other hand, feels like a genuine character trait that a person can cultivate. So when your daughter does something "nice" for a friend or she is kind to an animal, tell her, "You're a kind person" or "You're a good friend." Things are nice, people are kind. Unless they're just "nice."

  • Never call your daughter a "bad girl," address the behavior instead 4 of 9
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    Of everything on this list, this is the most important vocabulary tweak to make if you haven't already. Growing up, when I did something wrong, my mother would always call me a "bad girl," and that devastated my sense of self-worth and destroyed our connection.

     

    Remember, when your child lashes out emotionally, address the behavior, don't brand her entire being. If she's throwing a fit in a store, say something like, "You're not allowed to yell and scream while we're shopping, and if you can't stop, we'll have to leave." Telling kids they're "bad" never helps them behave better; in fact, it will only make matters worse.

  • Compliment your daughter’s good behavior 5 of 9
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    When my daughter handles a difficult situation gracefully or is able to control herself instead of getting wildly upset, I always give her a compliment about it later, during a calm moment — or sometimes right away, depending. Certainly in the moment I'll acknowledge what a good job she did, but often later when we're sitting down I'll hug her and say, "I'd like to give you a compliment." I say that first so she's knows it's coming and can really take what I'm about to say in, and then I tell her something like, "I'm really proud of how you were able to make up with so-and-so today at school." It shows that you're paying attention to the details of her life and that her hard work is worth it.

  • Let your daughter know you see her 6 of 9
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    I know listening to kids talk in their cracked-out way about what's going on with the kids at school can be mind-numbing, but really try to pay attention when your daughter is talking to you about social interactions. So many nights my daughter has ended up tackling some really deep issues that had been bothering her just by prattling along stream-of-consciousness style about her friends and frenemies. When she analyzes interpersonal dynamics in an insightful way, I always tell her, "You're a keen observer," because I want her to know she can trust her instincts.

  • Be specific about how your daughter is smart 7 of 9
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    If you ask your child the general question, "So, how was school today?," you're going to get a general answer like, "Fine." Experts say that if you want to get real answers from your kids about what happened in school each day, you need to ask them specific questions like, "What did you learn in math today? Are you still going over addition?" Specificity works best when giving academic compliments, too. Instead of telling your daughter she's smart, say something more specific like, "You're really good at math. You can add so quickly!" or "I love the way you used so many colors on those bricks! They look like they're glistening!" It'll make your child glisten, too.

  • Instead of telling your daughter she’s "silly," tell her she’s "funny" 8 of 9
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    If your daughter is making you laugh, don't dismiss her excellent sense of humor by calling it "silly." Tell her she's funny — and laugh freely with her! Funny = clever + creative! Celebrate that!

  • Talk to your daughter about love and money 9 of 9
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    Growing up, my parents never taught me anything about money, and all my mother told me about love was that going to college was a good idea because it was a good place to find a quality husband. Be honest with your daughters about your experiences with love (in an age-appropriate way, of course). Teach them that finding a partner is wonderful, but it shouldn't be their life's goal. It's something that hopefully happens along the way. Talk to them about your job, about how much things cost at the store, how much you pay for your mortgage or in rent. My daughter turns 8 this week and she's already talking about all kinds of ideas she has for businesses, and I'm so impressed! I'm learning a thing or two from her about money, and not being afraid to put a monetary value on your work, and I love that!

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