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Talking to Little Girls

Several weeks ago, I read a short article in The Huffington Post by Lisa Bloom: “How to Talk to Little Girls.” As an aunt to four “chiblings” (read: children of siblings), two of whom are little girls, I found that Bloom’s article struck a particularly resonant chord. My sister and her husband do a tremendous job of raising these little girls to feel loved and confident. And yet, I worry. Have I been doing my best to show in speech and conduct the traits about them that I value most? These two dear little girls have several years ahead of them during which society will attempt to mold them dramatically. It starts with Disney princesses who wait patiently for their princes; it ends with a woman disinclined to pursue active life roles in favor of the passive ones she’s been told are superior – morally and otherwise. And what if the prince never comes? What then?

I want these two precious little girls to have choices. If they want to take more traditional roles, I want them to do so for their own reasons, not because husbands bully them or aunts, uncles, and grandparents threaten to shame them if they do otherwise. My family has always been more conventional and, perhaps unintentionally, tends to promote the traditional lifestyle as the superior path. But I want these girls to feel that they can do as they please, that they are capable, intelligent human beings set to succeed in whatever roles they choose. In short, I want to help them – and all little girls – feel how I wish I’d felt on the cusp of grand life decisions: capable, content, and supported regardless of the path I ultimately chose.

Bloom’s article opened my eyes to a means of accomplishing this aim that I hadn’t considered before. What we pass on to little girls as important depends on what we always emphasize. And what we emphasize is usually whatever comes out of our mouths, especially when we greet them – for the first time or the hundredth time. I’m not always the best at speaking to children, especially children to whom I’m allowed a more playful relationship rather than a more disciplinarian, paid-$18-an-hour-to-be here one. To tell the truth, I’m a little ashamed to admit that what has usually come out of my mouth in greeting to my nieces has been exactly what Bloom pointed out is least helpful.

“My, don’t you look so pretty!” was, sadly, my most common form of “Hello.”

My only comfort is that so many, maybe even including a few of you readers, do or have done the same. Many variations on the theme exist, but it always comes with the same message attached: “The first thing I notice about you, little child, is how you look. Are you tidy? Are you lovely? Yes? Then I’m content to interact with you.”

Little girls receive the message that what matters off the bat, the thing sought first and foremost from them, is beauty. Instead, why not say hello, then ask, “What books have you been reading?” or “What games have you been playing lately?” Questions like these invite conversation, foster relationship, and demonstrate genuine interest in the person-hood of the child. In many cases, it encourages an intellectual or emotional response, one that implies safety and sincerity. Teaching a little girl that she’s beautiful is all well and good, but appearance is one of those areas that benefits from less commentary rather than more; our daughters, sisters, nieces, and what have you will learn to feel comfortable in their skins precisely when we allow them to, and that usually means taking a long, careful think about how we feel in our own skins first.

So I’ve resolved to make a few changes in how I behave toward my nieces and all little girls: (1) I will show that I care about their personal interests and their minds over and above physical appearance; (2) I will encourage them to explore active, creative games or pastimes whenever possible; and (3) I will always ask about them as people rather than comment on features of themselves they cannot influence, change, or discuss.

 

 

Cited:

Bloom, Lisa, “How To Talk to Little Girls,” The Huffington Post, June 22, 2011.

 

 

By Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller is a twenty-something blogger, cook, freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington. She’s a feminist trying ever-so-hard to embrace her spaces, conventional or not. She looks forward to numerous bad hair days, burnt cremes, a soapbox or two, and maybe (just maybe) a yellow polka-dot bikini in the years ahead.

5 replies on “Talking to Little Girls”

I’ve read both the original article by Bloom and the linked response by Jive Turkey (awesome username), and I have mixed reactions to both. Bloom’s message of being conscious of how we talk to girls and young women is laudable, but I think Jive has it right that the original article is a bit basic. I spend a lot of time with my best friend’s 3yo girl, and I do think (overthink) how I interact with her. So based on that, here’s my perspective:

Yes it’s great to talk with kids about books, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to also compliment them on their appearance. There’s a whole range of topics to talk to kids about because most things adults take for granted are actually pretty interesting to someone who’s only been experiencing life for a few years. With little kids, I think there’s particular benefit in complimenting their appearance IF I know they had some hand in choosing the day’s outfit. Kids get/have to make a lot fewer decisions than adults and I think genuinely complimenting a child on their decision is good for creating confidence and just plain making them feel happy at that moment. Complimenting a child’s appearance only becomes a problem if that’s the limit or majority of what I have to say to them. Overall I find that kids will tell you/me/anyone-who’s-not-a-total-stranger what they’re interested in, and there’s usually something worthwhile to talk about there.

What I find more complicated, and where I question myself more often is in accepting vs policing behavior. Do I remind my friend’s daughter to ask me for something with a “please” more or less than I would her hypothetical brother? Do I tolerate rambunctious play or shouting less because she’s a girl? (Whereas with a boy I suspect I might fall into the trap of “that’s how boys are” and tune out the play rather than asking the child to be quieter.) Do I overall encourage “polite” behavior from young girls (who are after all still kids and should be polite at time, but also have ample space and time to run around like hooligans)?

I am lucky to be able to spend a considerable amount of time with two of my nieces, and they are freaking phenomenal little girls. We play soccer, we color, we do craft projects, practice gymnastics, and read books among many other things. I always complement them on many different things, from increased coloring skill to yes, how flipping adorable they are. And I may have taught the 2-year-old, in response to the question “Why are you so cute?” to respond, “Because I am just like my auntie.” Seriously, it’s hilarious and adorable. I think it is all about balance. To say looks aren’t important is to discount a very real social structure. To make them feel they are the ONLY important thing is the problem. I think it is all about balance.

Sorry to make this tl:dr, but when I was little I remember my biological father saying that I would get by on my brains while my older sister would get by on her looks. For years, I interpreted this to mean he thought I was ugly; unfortunately, and even more awfully, what he actually meant was that my sister was dumb. I think the most important thing we can do with kids is be really mindful of the words that come out of our mouths and how they can be misconstrued very easily to a young persons brain and the effect it can have on their self esteem for years.

Valid criticisms or not, I think what makes this piece resonant is that so many of us never stopped to consider the way we interact with little girls, and in particular, what we choose to interact with them ABOUT. If nothing else, that’s what makes the article valuable: it makes us stop short and think for a moment.

I had no idea this article was so widely-distributed or so controversial, though! :)

For my part, I treat my nephews very differently. This article opened my blind little eyes to that. The way I greet my older nephew, and the topics on which I engage him, are more cerebral and relational. I feel ashamed of this, truth be told, but I’ll be changing it.

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