My firstborn daughter, Adelaide, never paid much attention to her appearance. She didn’t like dressing up or letting me brush her hair, let alone style it in a reasonable way. She hated trying on clothes and had no interest in choosing her own outfits. She had zero patience for those toddler sunglasses no matter how cool they looked on her.
She’s precocious and loves to make people laugh with her funny faces and voices. She’s tiny but her personality is larger than life—she seemed to ooze confidence. So, taking a page out of the feminist playbook, I took pride in the fact that I hardly ever told her she was beautiful to please her or boost her self esteem. And I secretly gave myself credit for this winning strategy at raising a girl who appeared to be so comfortable in her own skin. I gave her tons of love and affection but I deliberately followed the parenting advice to stop complimenting daughters on their beauty. Don’t tell little girls they’re pretty, they say. Child psychologists and parenting experts agree. Commenting on girls’ appearance just shows them we value physical characteristics over other qualities and could damage their self esteem and sense of worth. It sets them up for dieting, eating disorders and Botox—even abusive relationships. Why would I want that for her?
And for the most part, everyone in her life had gotten the memo too. I practically forbid my own parents from talking about their granddaughter’s looks. Here was this spritely blond-haired, blue-eyed girl with heartbreaking freckles on her teeny nose and a mischievous half-grin that lights up a room, and she didn’t even know how freaking cute she was.
And that was a problem. She actually didn’t know. On Halloween Day, at age four-and-a-half, my pink tutu-wearing Rapunzel came home in a terrible mood. She was nearly in tears as she told me that her BFF, Isabella—dressed as Snow White—had “cheated” because she was the most beautiful girl in the class that day. She might not have articulated it perfectly, but she was trying to say how awfully unfair it was that her best friend looked prettier than she did.
The statement stung. Where was this jealousy and sense of lack coming from? “You feel upset because your friend looked so nice today,” I said, trying to mirror her feelings back to her and empathize. “You think just because she looks nice, it means that you don’t, but that’s not true. You are so beautiful. Everyone is beautiful in their own way.”
11 tips on building self-esteem in children Adelaide wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer. And although we got through that difficult day, the enviousness and worry around her looks didn’t stop there. When I would get dressed up to go out, for example, or put on a brighter lipstick, she would lash out at me. “Mama, why do you look fancy and I don’t?! You always look pretty and I look ugly!” she’d scream, spitefully and sobbing.
My girl, who I thought was born sure of herself, who didn’t need anyone’s approval…needed to hear and feel that she was something special. She’d begun a princess phase and started lingering a little too long in front of the mirror. She’d insist on wearing dresses and bows to show off to her new school friends. She learned how to braid her own hair and other people’s too. I embraced it, but I was still holding fast to my rule, not telling the most perfect child I had ever laid eyes on how she took my breath away.
Looking back, I had been so smug about my complimenting policy, especially since I had been taught from an early age that looks were all too important. But like any parenting advice, nothing is black and white and it shouldn’t be all or nothing when it comes to complimenting girls or boys. Like it or not, we live in a world where looks are valued and rewarded. It’s human nature to appreciate beauty, want it, chase it, pay for it, suffer for it. If kids aren’t aware of beauty ideals when they’re toddlers, they certainly will be once they start school. Of course I tell her she’s strong and kind and creative—but when it comes to the inside and out, I want my daughter’s early reflections of her own beauty to come from me. I don’t want her to fall for the first person who comes along to tell her she’s beautiful. But more importantly, I should be using these moments as an opportunity to emphasize inclusive beauty ideals instead of all the BS stereotypes that still abound.
A year later, I’m much more generous with my compliments to Adelaide—and her little sister who’s a natural born fashionista—and it feels good. And guess what, she’s better at taking compliments than I am and she loves dishing them out too. She’ll proudly walk up to a friend to praise them on their sparkly outfit choice or tell one of her favourite teachers: “You have such beautiful brown skin.”
And knowing my daughter, with her tendency to see the glass half empty, maybe I’m even going to lay on the flattery a little thick so it’s overflowing a bit. She’ll figure it out. If she needs to hear that her hair has the prettiest waves (“yes, don’t you love how curled it gets in the summer?”) or that it’s even longer than mine (“let’s brush it out and see!”) so be it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I want her to see it as much as I do.
The writer of this story requested anonymity.
This article was originally published online in July 2019.