Thursday, January 22, 2015

Stop Telling My Girls That They Are Pretty!

Diana: "Gilbert told Charlie Sloan that you were the smartest girl in school, right in front of Josie."
Anne: "He did?"
Diana: "He told Charlie being smart was better than being good looking."
Anne: "I should have known he meant to insult me.” 
                                                                                  - Anne of Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery

I am not sure if you have noticed - but I am the mother of three wonderful, smart, imaginative, strong, clever, brave, ambitious, proud, creative, loyal, empathetic, stubborn, kind, and beautiful girls.  

And I have a bone to pick with you - yes, all of you.  Well, most of you - and just to be fair, I'll include myself in the mix as well. 

You see - as mother to the three aforementioned girls (hmm...I had no idea "aforementioned" was all one word.  For no apparent reason, that entirely delights me!), it is my job to nurture every single one, of the qualities listed above. As well as the many more that pop up as they grow and become more and more the women they were created to be.  It is my job to make sure they are thankful, polite, kind and that they grow up with a good solid sense of self, and of what is truly important in life. It is my job to make sure they understand that it matters the most how people are on the inside, and not what is seen on the outside.  It is my job to teach them that they are responsible for their actions, their words, the thoughts they allow into their minds.  That they can choose, every single day what kind of attitude they will have - how they will face their day.  Whether or not they will let life's difficulties defeat them, or challenge them to try harder.  They get to choose what kind of person they will become, what their priorities in life will be. Who they are in relation to others - Whether it will be a kind, loving, empathetic, strong, brave and ambitious person, someone who advocates for the hurting, builds up those around them. Or not... 

This is my job as their mom, and I do not take it lightly.

I want their imaginations to run wild with the delight of growing up, of working hard, and making their dreams come true.  I want them to know they can work hard now to make their dreams come true, and they will! I never want them to feel that they must hold back for any reason.  Not because they are young, because of race, social status, sexual orientation and certainly not because they are female or because something is just plain hard. I want them to always have the confidence they need in order to try, fail and try again.  I also want them to care about the dreams of others - and never, ever be callous, derogatory, insulting, lazy, entitled, or cruel at the expense of others.

I want my girls never to accept 'no' for an answer when it comes to what they believe to be right and good. I want them always to know they can stand up for themselves and fight to make their opinions heard - even if it differs from my own. I want them to be wholly their own person, not little mini-me's - not a picture of what they feel they somehow should be.  

I want my girls to never, ever doubt that if they work hard, they can change the world.  Because they can. Oh they can!

My girls can achieve anything they set their minds to.  I know this, I hope they know this. I hope all little girls know this...but you see, I don't think that they all do.  

And this is partially our fault . Yes, us, the grown-ups. 

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You see - when it comes to empowering our girls, we are really good talkers.  We like to watch the commercials, read the blogs, rant and rave for or against your own brand of gender equality (Whatever bend you would like to give it) - but very little seems to be changing.  Why?  

I will admit - in many ways I have been puzzled, I still am to a point.  I can see very clearly that something is not adding up.  But I am having trouble finding something solid to grab onto in my quest to instill these things fully into my kids.  I can spout what I believe until I am blue in the face, but that wont change anything. I feel like the problem goes deeper, starts sooner.  I have been focusing lots of my attention on this for almost 9 years now, ever since I became mom to a girl. And now, as my kids are starting to make that transition from little-kids to "tweens" I am starting to notice some patterns.  You see - I truly believe that the problem starts with us, with the grown-ups.  We want our girls to feel like they can do anything - but we are shooting ourselves in the foot, we are building our own barriers. We are doing this wrong, making it far more difficult than it should be and we don't even realize it....and it is time to stop.

This picture has been floating around Pinterest, I am not entirely sure where it came from.  But I shudder every single time I see it: 

Ah - looks like you can buy the shirt here

Yeah, that is not going to happen.  Am I the only one that doesn't think this is cute?  This is where I feel much of our “issues” (no pun intended) begin.

I have one simple request, to start this change of thinking - It starts with the greeting that almost every single adult gives my children almost every single time they see them. Think for a moment - you meet a young girl and you are given the opportunity to have a conversation with her, just the two of you and expected to fill the next 2-3 minutes with small talk.  What do you start with? What do 90% of adults start with?

"That is a very pretty dress," "I love your curly hair!" "Those sparkly shoes are very cute," "I love your boots!" Or as simple as "You are such a pretty girl!" or "You look just like a princess!" Little girls hear it over and over and over again, all day, every day. I've done it, we all have. Some adults even take it a step further - like the doctor that recently saw my youngest when we weren't sure if she needed stitches - and I quote:  "Now the big question is, what princess are you going to be for Halloween?"  Complete assumption. Little girl = pretty, pretty princess. His question was met with complete confusion on the part of my daughter (was she supposed to be a princess? Was she doing it wrong because she wanted to be a tiger?) and a quick "we are not hugely into princesses in our house, note the rocket-ship PJ's," from me. and an embarrassed change of subject from the pediatrician who apparently had never before met a 3 year old girl that was not obsessed with princesses – this is not ok people! Am I the only one that thinks this way? Am I somehow off? Have I missed something here?

My husband's company has had a huge conference this week, bringing in all the employees from around the world to meet together. He was telling me last night about all the fascinating people he has met. Off hand he mentioned that all the software developers in the company are male. Not unusual, but oh it made my heart ache when I heard it. All I could think of was my brilliant, mechanically-minded 8-year-old-girl, who would have to fight tooth and nail to make it in an industry like that, if she chose to go that route. And how there was a far bigger chance that someone would comment on how pretty her red hair is today, than tell her that her quick math skills could open worlds to her if she keeps working hard.

So this, my beloved readers, is a call to arms.  I challenge you to change how you interact with young girls. I'm not saying that it will fix everything, but it feels like a start. Something tangible we can do to help stop this trend.  Is your brain spinning a bit? We need to wake up a little, you see - us parents can rant and rave all we like. Blog posts can be written, articles read.  But until we truly take steps in real life, nothing is going to change.  I can't do this alone.  I need your help.

Now - I understand that this is how we have been trained. I am not faulting anyone for trying to compliment my daughters - I am also not anti-princess.  My girls enjoy them alright, they also enjoy super-heroes, spies, hot wheels, dinosaurs, pirates, tea parties, mine craft, wizards, star wars, reading, dress-up, and arts and crafts (so much paper and tape!)  Their play is in no way princess centered, nor have they ever told me that they are, or ever want to be a princess (though my littlest did tell me recently that she wanted to be king...) We also don't call them "princess". I am not saying it's wrong to call your daughter a princess, to each their own. But we have made the choice not to in this family.  

I know that calling little girls "cute or pretty" all the time is a social norm that adults simply fall back on when they don't know what else to say - but do you realize how learning to expect a compliment every time they meet someone new, associating the high we as human naturally get when we are admired always with what we are wearing? How we look? Think how often girls hear this. REALLY think.  It is all the time.  And then in the same breath that we just used to compliment those mini UGG boots, we say "it doesn't matter how you look on the outside."  Is it any wonder that the messages are getting skewed? It goes entirely against what I am trying to instill in my daughters.  We love to preach about gender equality, about empowerment, about "being the real you no matter what anyone says."  But by flippantly giving out compliments as if they are candy, we are training our girls from such a young age to value things that simply don't matter.  

The other day, my oldest daughter (8) asked me a question.  She said "Mom - why is it that it's a good thing when kids get bigger and gain weight - but all adult girls seem to want to lose weight? It is very confusing!" 

I was floored, speechless (for a moment anyway). I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer - and told her that it is all about being healthy, and that as a kid, it is a healthy thing to grow and get bigger.  But when you are an adult, sometimes it can be a challenge to get good exercise since we don't have things like recess, so adults talk sometimes about needing to be healthier and often, losing weight is a part of being healthy.  I hope I did ok, she seemed satisfied. 

These kids hear us. They are smarter than we give them credit for, they know, they see. We say things about ourselves that would be considered verbal abuse if we were to say it to someone else...and yet we spout penny compliments to our girls without even looking up from our cell-phones. How are they supposed to understand this? 

So my call to change is this.  Let us be honest with our girls, because let's face it - they can tell the difference anyway.  Compliment the ambition, instead of the boots, tell them they look like an adventurer instead of a princess, ask what their favorite knock, knock joke is (trust me, they have one) and tell them yours. (if you don't have one, get one. Everyone should have a favorite knock, knock joke!) Be genuinely amazed when they show you a project they are currently working on, or what books they have read, or what they have recently accomplished that was challenging - because trust me, these kids are amazing! Ask them what they want to be when they grow up, ask them why? Tell them when you were a kid, you wanted to be a dragon and listen to them laugh...or laugh when they give you an "do you expect me to believe that?" look and tell them they are pretty quick and can't be fooled.  

Do you still feel the need to tell my girls they are pretty?  Tell them they are pretty when you catch them being kind to someone.  Tell them they look beautiful when they are running, jumping, playing. Tell them you love their smile, that it makes you want to smile too. . Tell them stories about other kids you have read/heard/seen that were activists for change around the world and ask them what kinds of things they like to do to help others. Or, give them a genuine compliment. 
Compliments are important, we all need them. But they need to be REAL, not automatic, don't let it be filler. Don't let it be what you say to my girls just because you can't think of anything else to say.  Be more creative than that!  
Because I am not sure if you have noticed - but I am the mother of three wonderful, smart, imaginative, strong, clever, brave, ambitious, proud, creative, loyal, empathetic, stubborn and kind girls that are all beautiful both inside and out.  They are continually learning to be the women they were created to be, and I feel so blessed I get to watch it all happen!  

I can't wait to see what each and every one of them does with her life, I cannot wait to see them change the world.

1 comment:

  1. You and your writing are amazing! As Dad of 2 tweens, I can strongly identify..


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