There's been a lot of talk lately about whether or not it's okay to tell little girls they're pretty. It seems perfectly innocent, even natural, to tell your 2-year-old she's "the most beautiful princess in the whole wide world" when she twirls around in her sparkly pink tutu, giddy with delight. But does focusing on her appearance at such an early age, even in a positive way, send the message that her looks are more important than anything else?
Some people are saying that yes, even though we might not mean to, we're forging a bond between looks and self-worth that will be nearly impossible to break later on in life. And as a woman who grew up feeling tremendous pressure to live up to my mother's standard of physical perfection, part of me agrees with them. But as a mom who could never resist telling my own daughter what a pretty little girl she is, I think there is a way to acknowledge beauty without letting its pursuit become your child's first priority.
There are a couple of tricks to accomplishing this. First, make sure to praise your daughter for more than just her looks. She's smart, she's a fast runner, she's funny, she shares well with her friends, you love to hear her sing songs. Anything and everything. Praise her skills and talents and choices with the same enthusiasm grandma shows about how her granddaughter looks in her new Easter dress.
Because the reality is, she's going to get older and go to school and make friends with girls who have been lapping up the "you're so pretty" line from birth, and when she realizes everybody else has been on the receiving end of this compliment for years, she'll feel as self-conscious as she would have if you told her she was beautiful every second of every day.
The second trick is this: Be consistent with your compliments. When my mother was in a good mood, I looked "gorgeous." When she was in a bad mood, I looked "fine." To a little kid, this is incredibly confusing: I'm the same person today that I was yesterday, why doesn't Mommy think I look pretty anymore? And why is she always happier when I'm prettier? It took me years to figure out that my mother's moods influenced the way she felt about my looks, not the other way around.
I know it probably seems like I'm overcomplicating the issue: What's the big deal about telling a 2-year-old she's cute? It's not like tarting her up and putting her on Toddlers and Tiaras.
Certainly not! And there you are: Whenever you get really stressed about whether you're raising your daughter to have a healthy body image, you can always take comfort in the knowledge that no matter what, those tiny pageant freaks are going to be way more screwed up than your kid someday.
Do you tell your little girl she's pretty?
Image via Scott and Elaine Van der Chijs/Flickr