Motherhood Mondays: How to Talk to Little Girls

This Saturday, Toby and I were riding the bus downtown, when a six-year-old girl sat down next to us. She was wearing a white dress and sparkly red flats, and her blonde hair was twisted into a braid. My first instinct was to compliment her hairstyle, but I stopped myself…

I had just read the GREAT article How to Talk to Little Girls by Lisa Bloom, which encourages adults to ask little girls about ideas and books, instead of complimenting their looks. “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything,” says Bloom. “I always bite my tongue when I meet little girls, restraining myself from my first impulse, which is to tell them how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are…It’s our culture’s standard talking-to-little-girls icebreaker, isn’t it?”

(It’s true! It’s really easy and almost instinctive to compliment a little girl’s appearance, don’t you think?)

“Clothes or hair or bodies…it’s surprising how hard it is to stay away from those topics with little girls, but I’m stubborn,” Bloom writes. “Try this the next time you meet a little girl [ask her what she’s reading]. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it…Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.”

So, instead of telling the girl on the bus how much I liked her hair, I went ahead and asked her what books she liked. She told me that her mom was reading The Little House in the Prairie to her at night, and that they read one chapter per night, unless it was a long chapter, in which case they read half. We talked about books for five bus stops (that’s a long time in midtown traffic!) and then I asked her what she had for breakfast. “Pancakes,” she said. I told her that I loved pancakes with lemon and sugar, and her mom looked up and said, “That’s how I ate them growing up in Germany.” And then the little girl told me how she had gone on an airplane (!) to Germany earlier that summer and how she had seen a fox during her trip and how her grandparents took to her swimming and to the movies, where you could eat pizza in your seats.

I was thrilled by our conversation! (Although Toby fell asleep:) It was so much more interesting than braids.

Lisa Bloom’s advice to have real conversations with little girls (and boys!) is wonderful. (Think: “Have you been swimming this summer?” “Do you like animals?” “Do you know any jokes?”) Changing the conversation topic is such a seemingly small thing, but it can make a profound difference, don’t you think?

What’s your take? Do you instinctively compliment little girls’ looks, too? What else do you talk about with little girls? Do you remember having smart conversations with adults when you were little? Do you have any young girls in your life to at the moment, or do you have a daughter? Will you take Lisa Bloom’s pledge, too? (Think how amazing it would be if we all did this from now on!) Do you think it’s important or not that big of a deal? I’m curious to hear your thoughts… xoxo
P.S. This book looks fascinating, too. Plus, more Motherhood Monday posts

(Photos by Darcy Hemley, Deborah Donenfeld and Charles Gullung, via Momfilter)

  1. Liz says...

    This crossed my mind today and I love the perspectives on this topic. I agree that we as strangers should challenge ourselves to comment on a broader variety of topics with young girls. But I so agree that as mothers we should tell our children they are beautiful. My parents had a favorite joke that they still say to this day, which was “how did we get 3 such beautiful children?” Often followed by “you guys exceeded your gene pool”. I remember my mom often telling me I was beautiful growing up, and I think the way she said it made me feel cherished and also built my self esteem and a more nuanced way of viewing beauty, since I knew she meant both outer and inner beauty. Now as a mom myself, I find I cannot stop myself from telling my children how beautiful they are, and I hope they are internalizing it in the same way that I did.

  2. It’s so true that we (unintentionally) speak to little girls and little boys differently. This is a good reminder to be more mindful.

  3. Irena says...

    I was often complimented on my appearance however, my mother was clear to tell me I was beautiful because of what was inside – that it was because of my smile and kindness from my eyes – and the way I treated people. I think this helped see beauty as bigger than clothes, hair and make up. Now I enjoy putting time and effort into myself, but I only do it when I want to, and I don’t believe my beauty comes from the superficial, it comes from inside which has helped me feel confident and beautiful over time.

  4. Anon says...

    I have been wondering if I do this too much with my 2 year old. She’s just so delicious, and since I’ve had a second I especially want to say nice things to her. She’s so in the present that reminiscing etc doesn’t really work, but she quite likes it when we just point out all the things we can see and comment on or surroundings etc. Perhaps it depends on age too. My mum complimented me a lot growing up and although I dismissed it at the time I’m sure it’s a large part of my deep down confidence.

    Yes, girls need lots of other topics. Maybe it’s better for strangers to not make too many personal comments. But as a mum, I think ultimately it’s a healthy thing to compliment your kids. Would be a shame to overthink it and make them feel less awesome as a result, especially in teenage years.

    • Karen says...

      Be sure that the compliments focus on the whole rather than specific parts of the appearance or ability. I found that being told I looked pretty with my hair a certain way, endlessly it seemed, meant that my beauty was conditional on how I kept my hair or what I wore. Rationally that might seem ridiculous but that’s how I ended up feeling. Along with another person continually telling me as a child to eat more because I was too skinny I ended up with a big complex over body image. Obviously this was fed by society and the media constantly telling us how we should look, what the ideal of beauty is supposed to be. It has taken decades to begin to feel more comfortable in my own skin. When I replied (after yet another comment on my hair making me look pretty) that I am always pretty I received “No, you’re not”. As you can imagine I exploded! I was not going to allow this anymore, not in front of my daughter. I tried to explain how it makes me feel, that it might not be rational but it is a valid feeling the other person simply cannot see it, couldn’t consider my feelings and seems very rigid in thinking she was merely being complimentary. Be very careful with your choice of words, I know it’s hard to change habits of a lifetime but each person’s worth is not dependent on their looks, or even abilities.

  5. Lilly says...

    Challenge accepted. I really don’t know how much I compliment children (both boys and girls) on their appearance but at daycare drop off and pick up I always chat with at least one of my daughter’s friends.

    My daughter is a blonde haired blue eyed 3yr old who is well behaved in public. She is constantly being complimented on her appearance. While I tell her she is beautiful I also tell her she is brave, clever and cheeky. All I want for her is to have self worth and self respect, and to be able to make a stand in the face of peer pressure when she feels uncomfortable.

  6. Kelly Libby says...

    I will always tell the little girls and grown women in my life they are beautiful. I talk with them, especially my young nieces and the girls I nanny for, about many things and always encourage them to be unique and brave and their truest selves. I don’t think it has to be one or the other.

    I cannot remember any single time, as a child or a young adult, when I was told that I was beautiful. I knew I was loved but things like that just weren’t said around my house. And, it has been something I’ve struggled with for most of my life. I know that I’m smart, successful, a good person, etc etc but how nice to have grown up also knowing that I was beautiful. That inner confidence would have helped so much.

    • Heather says...

      As an intelligent, well-educated, woman myself, I believe it is important to empower all children–including girls–to be brave, strong, leaders, etc. and our words matter. As a parent with two beautiful children (according to other peoples’ comments, of course I think they’re beautiful, I’m their mom!) I’ve always tried to stress to them that what matters is inside…are they pretty inside?…that’s what really matters. That said, I read an article last year, I forget where/by whom now, but a few lines in it really stuck with me. I might be poorly paraphrasing now, but the gist of it was this:
      “Tell your children that they are beautiful. If you, their parents, the people closest to them, won’t tell them that they are beautiful, they might never hear it in their entire lives.” Though my children, in particular my daughter with her long, blond, silky, hair and blue eyes, do hear this type of comment from strangers, I still think it is important that they hear it from the people that love them most. I still believe that what is on the inside matters most, but I agree with you, Kelly Libby, it is not a bad thing to have balance, especially inside your own home. So I will continue to try to encourage & empower my children and help them to be the good people that they are innately, but I will also compliment them on their outer beauty occasionally.

    • Cheryl says...

      I realized recently that I very rarely tell my four year old daughter that she is beautiful. I mostly point out her determination and smart thinking. If anything I tell her a dress is cute or she matched certain colors very well. I say when her hair looks smooth and tangle free.

      Then just the other day I caught myself having a quiet moment with her and we locked eyes and I said “there’s that beautiful face that I love.” You should have seen the way she lit up from within. She needed to hear that and I had no idea. Yesterday she touched my cheek and said sweetly that I have a beautiful face. It was like the ice was broken. I firmly believe now that the word Beautiful isn’t some kind of cliche or feminism slipping through our fingers. Simply put, inner beauty radiates out and that outer beauty is what you wear as a badge all day.
      I’ll never forget to compliment her in that quiet, inner way again.

  7. Caro says...

    I work with children a lot and sometimes i ask them about the clothes or the hair, not always but i will take this challenge right away. Thanks!

  8. angie says...

    I work at a children’s clothing store and have had the most amazing conversations with young people; usually, however, when they start talking about something interesting first. I will now be the first one to start a conversation about something truly interesting. Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. This is such an important concept to practice! I stopped to think about how I converse with children and I am one of the guilty parties! For example, I would never say to a little boy that he is cute or handsome, but for some instinctual reason, I will always mention a little girl’s cuteness or beautiful appearance. This is a life lesson and perfect “stumbled upon moment” for me- thank you!

    adorn la femme

  10. why is this so hard?
    i already messed up 3xs today and its only 12pm…..

    challenge accepted.
    thank you for helping change the conversation, Jo

  11. I must have been an ugly kid, because everyone would compliment me on my math skills, and i agree! We should encourage little girls to be smart, to become leaders, to do something great with their lives. it has been bothering me great coming back to Cyprus, and realizing that women here think they were only meant for the house, that they can’t do anything with their lives. And these women raise their girls the same way. It bothers me so much i want to scream! But me personally, everyone talked to me as if i was a genius, but i always felt insecure about the way i looked. It is very important to let girls know they are Beautiful! If a person thinks they lack in looks or brain it’s as damaging.

    • Adelaide says...

      I agree, a healthy balance is important!