As parents, our words carry so much weight with our children. They believe us. We’ve convinced them that an old man in a red suit comes down the chimney to bring them presents, for goodness’ sake. With this influence comes great responsibility. Even a fleeting comment can have a long term effect on how our children feel about themselves and the world around them.
As a mother of three little girls and as a woman who was once a little girl herself, I have seen first hand how the following comments made by the adults in my life (family and non-family) shaped my views as a child. It took a lot of life experience to have the courage to try to change them, so I’ve decided to give my girls a head start.
Times have changed, and how we talk to our little girls also needs to change.
1. If a boy is mean to you, then he must have a crush.
It seems so innocent, and usually true, but it sets a precedent for children at a young age that boys don’t know how to express their feelings other than being hurtful and girls should just understand. My six year-old came home saying that a boy was mean to her. My instinct was to tell her that he must have a crush on her, but I stopped myself. I don’t want her to ever interpret hurtful behavior for love or affection. She deserves better than that, and our young boys deserve the chance to learn how to communicate their feelings better than that. So, instead, I let her know that it’s never okay to treat another person with disrespect and give her advice on how to ask someone (boy or girl) to stop being mean.
2. Act more ladylike.
I don’t mean pretending to be grown-up ladies. We are a heels and tea party obsessed household, and I love it. I’m referring to the way girls are told from the very beginning that their behavior is held to a higher standard than boys and, in turn, are somehow responsible for the actions of boys. “Boys will be boys, but girls should act like ladies.” “Don’t wear that or boys will think they can do this.”
Just because girls tend to be more emotionally mature than boys, it doesn’t mean that my daughters have to act a certain way in order to not be held responsible for someone else’s behavior or make the people around them feel comfortable. Everyone should be held accountable for their own behavior, regardless of gender. And as long as my girls are kids, they will be allowed to act like kids (even if my seven year-old won’t stop asking for high heels).
3. Anything that associates eating and exercise with the size of our bodies.
This one is hard, because it will most likely be out of my control. My parents were great about never saying these things, but I was still influenced by the message that was being presented in everything I saw on TV and in magazines. We’ve come a long way when it comes to body image these days, but the idea that skinny is best still lingers.
So to counteract that, I try to focus on how certain foods will make us feel as opposed to how they will make us look. I say things like, “Too much candy will hurt your tummy and make you tired.” And “an apple will give you energy.” My girls have asked me why I exercise. My honest answer is that I want to be a smaller size (because society has convinced me that I should be). But I want them to develop healthy habits because it benefits their life, not because it makes them more attractive to the people around them. So, I tell them it’s because I want to get stronger and have more energy to keep up with them. Maybe if I say it enough, I’ll start believing it myself.
4. If someone ever hurts you, I will kill them.
It sounds so protective and chivalrous, and I have to admit it made me feel safe as a kid to hear the men in my life say it. Unfortunately, the more I was exposed to victims of sexual assault as I grew up, I realized just how dangerous that statement could be. Too many times, I would hear victims say they didn’t tell anyone because they were scared of how their dads or husbands might react. Essentially, it makes a daughter think she has to choose between telling her story and keeping a loved one out of jail. Which do you think wins every time? If you want your daughter to feel safe, try this statement instead. “If someone ever hurts you, I will believe you.”
Most of these comments are said from a place of love and tradition, but these traditions are rooted in a time when women were treated more as a sidekick to the men in their lives.
5. That’s a boy/girl thing.
My four-year-old daughter asked for a bike with Chase from Paw Patrol on it for Christmas. My first instinct was to give her the pink one featuring the girl puppies, because she’s a girl who loves pink. But I reminded myself that she asked for Chase. My daughter likes to be in charge. It makes perfect sense that she connects more with Ryder’s right hand pup, as opposed to one of the other characters. So, she received a blue bike featuring her favorite dog from Paw Patrol with a helmet to match, and she was ecstatic. My Chase-adoring daughter also asked me why there is usually only one or two girls in a group that saves the day. “Girls like to save the day,” she told me. My other two daughters chimed in, “They do!” Yes, indeed. Keep asking questions that challenge outdated societal norms. That is how you save the day.
I know that most of these comments are said from a place of love and tradition. The problem is that these traditions are rooted in a time when women were treated more as a sidekick to the men in their lives as opposed to an equal and independent person, a time when women were to be seen and not heard instead of outspoken and opinionated.
Times have changed, and how we talk to our little girls also needs to change. I can’t guarantee that they won’t hear any of these statements over the course of their childhood. But hopefully, not hearing them from the person who has enough clout to make them believe that a fairy flies around the world paying for little kids’ teeth will be enough.
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