When all babies are born, people naturally love to comment on how beautiful they are. As those babies grow into children, however, it seems comments on boys’ looks become less frequent—while complimentary phrases for girls remain dominated by some variation of how pretty they are.
We can’t always change what other people are saying to our kids. But we can make sure they know that they’re more than just pretty. And with one recent study finding girls as young as nine wanted to be “small” and conform to beauty ideals, helping them recognize their worth beyond their looks is incredibly important.
“Socio-culturally, there’s a lot of emphasis on the value of attractiveness and the value of thinness,” says the study’s author, Professor Heidi Fuller of the Sport Movement Science Department at Salem State University. “It surrounds girls,”
Here’s what she suggests doing instead:
According to Fuller, the first thing parents should do is examine his or her own behavior to see if there are any non-verbal messages around body image.
She tells Motherly, “Some of my early research showed some very interesting anecdotal things where girls [would] say, ‘My mom never sat down to dinner, she fed us but she didn’t sit down with us.’”
Tell her she’s strong
We can control what is modeled at home. But, outside of it—and through technology—our kids may be exposed to a world with an unhealthy obsession with women’s looks.
“The best antidote to it is to monitor the things that you say and compliment your daughter, especially on being strong,” says Fuller.
Complimenting a little girl’s strength instills a sense of confidence at an early age. We’re saying, “wow, you’re so strong!” but we’re also saying “you are capable.”
Tell her she’s fast
According to Fuller, participation in sports helps emphasize the strength, capability and social skills parents should complement their girls on. “When girls are in a team environment, they’re very nurturing to each other, they’re very collaborative, they develop strength and self-esteem and confidence.”
As a parent on the sidelines, instead of saying, “You looked great out there,” try to specifically emphasize the positive aspects of your girl’s performance on the field, rink or court. “Say, ‘You really handled the ball great,’ or, ‘You were so fast,’” says Fuller.
Tell her she’s makes you proud
Of course, not all kids will excel in sports. Even if yours isn’t the fastest on the team, she will still bring something to the game. Hone in on that to build her confidence. For example, Fuller suggests telling your child when and how she was a good teammate. “Say, ‘You comforted [your teammate], you gave her a hug when she missed the shot, that was great.’”
Ask her about her interests
Sports may not be your daughter’s forte, but something else could be. Whether it’s guitar lessons, Legos or school musicals, support her in seeking out interests that make use of her skills. Then, the best thing to say, according to Fuller, is “show me.”
“When parents become students, that is a huge boost in a child’s self-esteem,” she says. “The idea that a kid—at any age—can show their parent something makes them feel even better about themselves.”
Tell her she’s beautiful—when appropriate
Fuller says there are certainly times when it’s appropriate to talk about your child’s looks, particularly if she is feeling down about herself due to bullying or media consumption. And Fuller says that is totally understandable.
Here’s the key: You should also take the opportunity to offer a gentle counter perspective to the outside messages she’s receiving and remind her that she’s strong, too.