My daughter is cute. She has olive skin, big dark eyes, thick auburn hair, delicate features and an infectious smile. I am constantly being told how cute, adorable or beautiful she is. Of course, she’s almost two and at that age, most children are pretty cute. But, she is also a girl and will one day become a woman and at some point she will either continue to be beautiful or will become somewhat ordinary looking. The pressure women feel to be beautiful is not a new topic of discussion, but I’m concerned with how such early messages of its importance can impact my daughter. I don’t want her to believe she is valued only because of her looks. She has already received balloons and flowers just for “being cute”. I’ve listened to people say things like, “There should be a discount for being cute,” or (while handing her a balloon or toy), “You deserve this because you’re cute.” I want to scream when people say this. The truth is that beautiful people often have advantages because of their beauty, but thinking beauty constitutes entitlement or exploiting it to get what she wants are not the lessons I want to instill. My fear is that she might grow to be an attractive woman who abuses her privilege or that she will turn into that ordinary looking woman or girl who is sad and confused because people don’t admire her anymore.
It seems to me that a popular way to combat this is to tell girls and young women how smart they are. Complimenting their brains will distract from their appearance and empower them to do great and wonderful things. I’m not sure this is an appropriate response either. It’s true that throughout history, women have been valued for their intelligence much less than their male counterparts. However, like beauty, intelligence is innate. Neither are within the control of their possessor. Big important people in the world of education and parenting have begun to warn against labeling kids as smart because it creates a fear of failure that prevents them from challenging themselves. I don’t want my daughter to be lazy or have a fear of failure. I want her to be bold and excited by a challenge. I’ve thought of some other alternatives to the “cute” compliment.
Things to Tell My daughter besides “You’re Cute” (and “You’re Smart”):
- “You are determined.” – One day at Earth Fare my daughter was pushing her own high chair to our table. A woman sitting in another booth noticed the effort put into trying to pull the chair and spoke these words to her.
- “I like your style.” – Recently, my daughter has enjoyed picking out her own clothes. She inevitably ends up in creative, funky outfits. This is still a comment on her appearance, but it’s about the choices she’s made. When she wears her shark rain boots with a tutu over a dress this might be the perfect response.
- “You are helpful.” – My daughter became a big sister recently, so we have really been trying to reinforce this one. She demonstrates her helpfulness in wiping spit-up from her brother’s face, throwing away diapers, and unloading the groceries.
Above all, I want my children to be themselves, be kind, and work hard. I want them to know their true value is found in their character, not beauty or intelligence. I want the same for your children too. So, when I see your son or daughter, I will try to observe some aspect of their character rather than resort to the standard “You’re cute,” or “You’re smart.”