How do I tell my daughter she looks nice?

I’ve been watching my 8 year old daughter start to play with her identity. It’s a wonderful thing to watch her develop into her own person and begin to visually express on the outside who she feels she is on the inside. Yet, this is also causing me some confusion as I grapple with how I should respond.

This Christmas she received a gift card from her aunt to an accessory store. You know, that store in the mall where they sell cheap jewelery and every item is adorned with cuter-than-cute airbrushed images of Justin Bieber or bejewelled and bedazzled to within an inch of its life. One of the items she bought was a pair of glasses. Now, my daughter doesn’t need glasses. She bought them simply as a fashion accessory. She wanted to see how she would look with glasses on.

This morning she came down the stairs from her bedroom wearing both the glasses and a pink bandanna headband. She looked adorable, and I was just about to say, “hey, you look cute.” And then I caught myself. If I say that, what is my daughter really going to hear? That making a change in her appearance gets her noticed as “cute”? And what of that word “cute” anyway? What am I saying to my daughter when I say she looks “cute”? Am I seeding the thought in her that her self-worth is tied to her appearance?

Of course, I didn’t think all that consciously in that split second where I paused, questioning my choice of phrase. This has all come after as I reflect on the moment. But something in that moment did make me hesitate and check what I was about to say and, instead of saying she looked cute, I said ,”hey, who are you and what have you done with my daughter?” She smiled and giggled and went into the bathroom.

I don’t know if that was a better choice of words, but it felt better in the moment than saying, “hey, you look cute.”

I’ve been thinking about this for the rest of the day. Our words carry so much weight with our kids. I know sometimes it doesn’t feel that way (is she listening to me?) but they do, and they are listening. Always. I hear the things I say come rolling out of my kids mouths all the time. They take it all in.

What do I say to her? I love that she is beginning to play with her identity and make her outside a reflection of who she feels she is on her inside. But what do I say to let her know that I don’t think her self-worth is connected to how she looks?

8 year old me

Glasses. I used to get beat up when I was a kid for wearing glasses and here she is wearing them as an accessory. Fine by me, which is me projecting my own feelings about what those glasses represent. Intelligence? Brains? Really, if she wants to project an image that she is intelligent and brainy, isn’t that okay? Better than short skirts and makeup, right?

Or is it? I mean, I am still making a judgement call about her based on how she looks, projecting my own assumptions and beliefs about what something like glasses represent. Am I not still making a judgement based on her appearance?

There are going to be times when I want to compliment her on her appearance. She’s beautiful, and I want to tell her that. I want to notice. Maybe I want to say it to her as a shield to protect her from the message that she will be constantly bombarded with by popular culture and advertising that she is not. She’s my little girl and I want to protect her. But on the other hand I don’t want to start sending her signals that men only notice her when she looks a certain way.

So, I’m feeling a bit caught right now. What do I say to my daughter? Is it okay to tell her I think she looks nice? That she is beautiful? Any advice?

9 responses to “How do I tell my daughter she looks nice?

  1. I love hearing about the same issues I struggle with as a Mom, from a Dad point of view. My pet-peeve phrase (that I catch myself using ALL the time) is "You're a good_____(boy/girl)". Why "good"? When what I really mean is "Thank you for cleaning up that mess" or "That meant a lot to me that you played with your brother when he was sad"…. A lot of the time we do simply condense: "You look cute!" really means "Look at all the trouble you went to — for no reason other than you like how you look", Or something… and yes, isn't it hard to make any comments about physical appearance when it's positive….and yet a few hours in the back yard and I wouldn't hesitate to say to my kid "Get in the bath you disgusting pig child!". Do they take damage to their psyche when I say that? Well, obviously I hope not, and I'm pretty confident they know I'm talking about nothing more than the outer layer of grime and filth. Not about who they are as a person. So when I say "I like that sweater on you" my daughter knows that I'm complimenting her taste in clothing, and that she looks "cute", but Her and her Outside appearance are mutually exclusive. I often opt for "Hey pretty girl" or "there's my handsome guy". And really, if we, as parents, have done our jobs well, their self esteem already knows the difference between "You are a great kid" and "You are a great kid because I approve of your hair barrette and socks", and will take your "You look cute!" or "Take a shower, pig-child" for what they are–not statements of value or worth, just observations of the outer layer.

    • "Take a shower, pig-child!" = awesome. I need to remember that. I work hard at the general "good" comment as well. Doug's comment below has a reference to Carol Dweck, whom I had never hear dof before. But since he posted it, I've searched out some of her stuff and it's very good – related to what you are saying about praise and praising in general terms & what kids here when we praise vs. what we would like them to hear.

  2. Doug Belshaw

    I had this debate at Christmas with my mother-in-law when I called my 11 month-old daughter 'beautiful'. Now obviously, at the moment, she can't understand me, but the reason I was pulled up was because I'm a great believer in Carol Dweck's ideas around praising effort rather than the 'talent' construct. My mother-in-law (a teacher) believed that me calling my daughter 'beautiful' was the same.

    It' a tricky one, for sure, and one I'm going to have to struggle with over the next few years. Thanks for sharing Clint!
    My recent post Best of Belshaw 2011 now available!

    • Thanks so much for the lead on Carol Dweck, Doug. Been checking out some of her stuff on the web really like what she has to say. It makes so much sense re) praise and what we say vs what kids hear.

  3. Important to think about, Teagan's pretty into 'fashion' right now so it's timely for us. (and she has play glasses, too!) I try to tell her she's beautiful at less than obvious times, in PJs with messy hair, when I'm just enjoying a moment with her, in casual conversaition. Because she IS beautiful then! But I also will compliment a neat outfit she's wearing, or a cool hairstyle she figured out. I wrestle with it, but the reality is that we do strive to improve our appearances, and hope we "look beautiful[handsome]" for these efforts. So I hope that occasional praise or compliment is supportive and noticing, rather than driving a need to focus solely on her appearance.

    • I wonder if daughters hear those phrases "you look pretty" or "you're beautiful" differently depending on whether it comes from Mom or Dad? Some of what I have read about the dad/daughter relationship indicates that her sexuality and the future relationships she may have with men are greatly influenced by the type of relationship she has with her father and (basically) how she sees her father treat women. That's the message that she gets about how she should be treated by the men in her life. Which is why I think I tread extra cautiously here with all the beauty and self-image stuff. But i wonder what she hears when the message comes from Mom?

    • …and what is it with the fashion accessory glasses with the girls, eh? Or has that always been a fashion thing with girls that I just haven't noticed before?

  4. We tell our daughters: "You are beautiful on the inside and on the outside."

  5. the wording doesn't matter much, as long as what they hear is "I love you" 😉