You’ve been telling your daughter she can be whatever she wants to be since the day she was born, but have you ever stopped to consider the unconscious words and phrases you’re uttering that may be limiting her ability to be who she wants to be long-term? We checked in with Dr. Lea Lis, child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids, about the expressions we commonly say to (or in the presence of) our girls and why we need to stop.
1. “You look pretty.”
Why It’s Problematic: With daughters, you never want to focus on their appearance when giving praise, says Dr. Lis, since it sends the wrong message in terms of what is valued. Instead, focus in on specific character-building traits. For example, you could say: “Wow, you picked out an amazing outfit!” or “You look so confident.” These call out attributes they can control vs. stuff they can’t.
2. “Go give Uncle Larry a hug!”
Why It’s Problematic: All children—but especially girls—should be allowed to develop body autonomy, i.e. decide who gets to touch them and when, even at an early age. So, as much as you don't want to hurt his feelings when your favorite uncle is standing with his arms outstretched, it’s important to give your daughter the option to choose. Suggest an alternative greeting (say, a handshake or a fist bump) or tell them it’s OK to simply say hello. By not pressuring her, you’re teaching your daughter that she’s in charge of her body at all times—a skillset you want her to have moving into her teenage years.
3. “You have made me proud” or “I am proud of you.”
Why It’s Problematic: Seems innocuous enough right? Not exactly. See, for girls, the need to please is something that's pretty much taught at birth. And when they tie their happiness and success so directly to making you proud or happy, they may begin to silence their inner creativity or confidence. With a phrase like ‘I’m so proud of you,’ you have the best intentions, but it’s important to switch the focus away from what pleases you and instead model ways they can be proud of themselves. Instead, try: ‘Wow, you must be so proud of yourself' to show that they are their own compass and don’t need others’ validation or approval to succeed. Long-term, this helps build a foundation for a healthy self-esteem, says Dr. Lis.
4. “Someday you and your husband will…”
Why It’s Problematic: When we assume a certain sexual orientation, we are setting up a standard or expectation, whether we mean to or not. Instead, Dr. Lis suggests using terms like “future person” or “someday, when you start dating” since these phrases leave open the possibility of a fluid sexual orientation. “This kind of subtle messaging change may help your child feel more comfortable talking about their sexuality, whereas the former may make your child afraid to be honest with you if they suspect they might be LGBTQ,” she explains.
5. “I need to lose weight.”
Why It’s Problematic: We’re all guilty of body-shaming ourselves. But doing it in front of your kids—especially girls—can lead to long-term issues with body image, says Dr. Lis. A better plan: Talk about healthy eating around them (like the fact that vegetables help make you strong), but also all the wonderful things bodies can do (dance, sing, run fast on the playground, etc.).