My yoga teacher brings her infant daughter to class sometimes. No one minds. She’ll sit and watch, sometimes nap, or occasionally crawl to our mats when we’re down in child’s pose, down at her level. She delights at the sound of our closing chants, no matter how off-tune.
“Oh you’re just so pretty!” a middle-aged woman cooed after class to the bright-eyed girl. Without skipping a beat, she added, “Oh wait, shoot, I’m not supposed to say that, right?”
Her quick correction made me laugh — I knew exactly what she meant.
I, too, have been caught by that knee-jerk instinct to compliment a little girl’s dress or hair or face — compliments that are conditioned into our culture automatically.
I’ve felt the disapproving look of a mother, as if to say, ugh, how original.
The woman lowered her voice to a more serious tone. “You’re a very strong and intelligent young lady. Lean in!” The baby giggled right back.
Although I’m not a fan of restricting what we can and cannot say (if a little girl is rocking some killer style, I’ll tell her), I do agree with the intention and the awareness.
A few years ago, Lisa Bloom’s article “How to Talk to Little Girls” made waves, insisting that we ask little girls first about the books they read and the ideas they have, rather than compliment their looks.
“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 wrote. “Try this 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.”
Let’s also not forget the powerful Verizon commercial that aired last year, highlighting the unintentionally damaging things we all say to girls — things like “Who’s my pretty girl,” and “Don’t get your dress dirty.”
In other words, we’re all in agreement that the things we say to our little girls — the innuendos, the accentuated topics, the specific words — can have a powerful impact.
But instead of talking about what we can’t say, how about what we should?
Girls will always live in a world that categorizes, compares, and exploits; that’s our reality. What can we say to make their core a little stronger? What are the things our daughters deserve to hear, especially at home?
How to talk to little girls:
1. “No” is a powerful word. Use it, and use it often.
2. Don’t apologize for the love you have for yourself. Never diminish your light to make someone else shine.
3. You are your character — not your looks, not your job, and not your grades.
4. I love my body, and I love yours, too.
5. It’s called a vagina — VAGINA. Vulva. Clitoris. These are not dirty words.
6. Beauty isn’t earned; it doesn’t define your worth. Beauty is a subjective state of mind, but being kind is always beautiful.
7. Not all boys are bad; not all girls are mean. We’re in this together.
8. Accept that you will meet some mean girls along the way, no matter how old you are. Try and remember that the meanest people are the ones who are hurting the most. Wish them well and stay away.
9. Your mind will lie to you. It’ll tell you that you’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough — not enough. It’ll tell you that you need to be perfect to be loved, that your life needs to be a certain way before you can be happy. All of these are lies. Just because those thoughts are real doesn’t make them true. If you need help finding the truth, I will help you.
10. Girl friendships are powerful. Find the right ones — the ones who build you up, not tear you down — and keep them in your corner. You’ll need them.
11. You’re strong and brave.
12. You aren’t your emotions, no matter how strong they feel. You aren’t your hormones. You aren’t your mistakes.
13. Aim to be the most interesting person in a room, not the prettiest.
14. Sex doesn’t devalue you as a person. You’ll always have value. Always.
15. You don’t have to become a mother or a wife to be a complete woman.
16. True joy isn’t found by looking OUT — out to the approval of parents, the expectations of friends, the lingering eye of a cute boy. You’ll want to look out for love, out for comfort, and out for a sense of identity, but you’re already you; and you’re magnificent as you are. The sooner you learn to focus on what you have, not on what you don’t have, the happier you’ll be.
17. No one cares what you’re wearing; they’re all too busy worrying about their own outfits. Be comfortable.
18. Femininity is not a weakness. You’re more powerful than you think.
19. You aren’t responsible for anyone else’s happiness, including your mother’s.
20. I can handle anything you have to say, anything you might feel, and any questions you might have. No matter how you’re feeling, I guarantee another girl has felt the same.
Michelle Horton is the founder and editor of EarlyMama.com — a site that proves young motherhood doesn’t have to define or limit us.