The Russian Behavioural Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner said that when we are growing up, everyone needs to know that we have someone who is prepared to die for us.
We don’t hear anyone say that very often, but the nearest and the most valuable thing that little girls can hear is how beautiful and wonderful and talented we are, and how happy and successful our lives are going to be. All parents should tell their children something along these lines. Girls who hear this kind of talk develop a kind of inner certainty that makes them hugely resilient to the slings and arrows of life.
Of course there are those parents who believe that to tell a child how fabulous and special they are will turn them into unpleasant unpopular ego-centric creatures, despised by everyone else as self-centred and obnoxious. There is certainly a risk that if the child is an only and there is no-one to help them to develop a wider perspective and become resilient, this might happen, but generally speaking unless at least one person is giving us praise we fail to develop sufficient levels of self-esteem to become fully socialised and integrated into relationships.
That is, however, a long way from giving them constant praise about the way they look. There is a world of difference between encouraging healthy self-esteem and creating a heightened sense of awareness about how we appear and whether looks are important. We all know, of course, what while its essential to be well turned out, it doesn’t matter what size or shape we are, or whether we are wearing the latest products or styles. Awareness of these are also embedded at an early age along with good self-esteem, so we do need to be super careful not to encourage a girl to think that these things are valuable or important.
If you meet a young girl, better to ask them what they have been doing, what books they have been reading, what their favourite school subject is, and who their best friend is than praise them for their looks. Engage in a conversation which follows their interests and passions but don’t discuss clothes, hair or bodies, or who is pretty. Its also healthy not to ask about boys, or any domestic plans – encourage them to think about their career, and what they need to do to to achieve their goals.
You may find that the girl is initially rather disarmed to be asked this sort of thing, and to be encouraged to talk about whats going on in her mind rather than whats on her head. But they quickly become used to it – it is after all what the teachers are doing in school – and when it becomes apparent to them that their thoughts and ideas have value, they start to respond better. In fact, it doesn’t take much encouragement for girls to become release their inner nerd, especially if the topic is something that they have interest in and are good at.
Its particularly good if you can share with them your own achievements and how you did that. By seeing that anything is possible – because they know someone who wrote a book, or swam in deep ocean, or decorated the lounge, or drove a truck – or whatever it is that you have done. Modelling (or imitating) is a classic way that we learn, and as well as talking positively to girls about what they can achieve, demonstrating that its do-able can be a powerful influencer.
Its easy to forget how much influence we have over those small mini-me people around us. In the same way that a casual word of compliment or criticism can set up a lifetime of neuroses or obsession, we can also encourage and stimulate non-gendered hopes and dreams of power and success in so many ways. It just requires a moment of thought before you mention how nice her hair is looking and instead ask what book she is reading, or film she has seen.
Get in touch with Annie at www.anniegurton.com