When my almost 2-year-old daughter tentatively counts to five, I clap vigorously and tell her she’s “so smart.” When she recently tried on her new winter bubble coat, printed with periwinkle flowers that made her lovely blue eyes pop, I gasped and called her my “beautiful baby.” But maybe I shouldn’t say that.
In this heyday of helicopter parenting, the way parents compliment their kids is under attack. We’re not supposed to praise their intelligence: “When we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I’m smart,“ writes James Hamblin at the Atlantic. “And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I’m not smart after all.” Nor are we supposed to acknowledge their looks: “Knowing what we do now about young girls and self-esteem — that body image issues start as early as preschool, that girls who feel good about themselves are more likely to wait longer to experiment with sex and alcohol — compliments become more problematic,” writes Sarah Powers at the Washington Post.
Can’t we say anything anymore?
Millennial parents (I am one) sometimes fancy themselves mad scientists engineering Franken-babies: Never call them smart so they’ll be deeply analytic problem-solvers; never call them beautiful so the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show won’t one day make them feel terrible about themselves. While you’re at it, fill them exclusively with breast milk so they’ll crush the SATs; feed them organic veggies only so they’ll never, ever contract coxsackie from the playground.
Overthinking, overparenting, overdoing it has become the new normal, with little gray area. No cupcakes—they’re unhealthy and potentially deadly for those with allergies. (In the 80’s, allergies were announced and accommodated, and somehow cupcakes persisted). No Barbies—they’re bad for body image. No pink—it encourages gender stereotypes. And no Disney princesses, God no—they’re obviously anti-feminist.
None of this is unilaterally true, of course (there’s a good chance your kid will get coxsackie, and it’s disgusting). But the notion that we can craft our children like microbrews and in the process shield them from the harsh glare of society is seriously misguided.
Attempting to create a utopia at home will only protect them so much. In fact, when they eventually leave that cozy, politically correct cocoon, the complexities outside will likely land like a ton of bricks. Take my family friend, raised on quinoa and carrot cake. He has so much more love for Chee-tos than a kid who was allowed to pluck a bag from the vending machine on occasion.
Take me: In my most awkward middle school years, when I had a sad excuse for a Rachel haircut, braces, and weighed roughly 80 pounds soaking wet, my family routinely told me I was beautiful. They also told me that I was a great poet, and that I slayed in the “Singing in the Rain/It’s Raining Men” tap medley of my dance recital. I knew being pretty wasn’t the only thing that mattered, but it was still nice to hear. Their calling me beautiful mattered to me; it made me feel confident.
I believe it can do the same for my daughter. It seems odd that calling her beautiful would tear down her confidence when I know firsthand it can do the opposite. She’s too young to realize now that she has Curly Sue ringlets, the kind other kids or certain impossible beauty standards could make her feel like she should straighten. But she’ll grow up hearing it’s beautiful all the time from me. There will be a narrative in her mind about the way she looks that is filled with pure love and positivity.
It’s hard to come across anyone who doesn’t want to feel pretty or handsome, who doesn’t factor it as at least part of their measure of confidence. Try as we may to shield our daughters, not talking to them about that doesn’t feel realistic to me. I believe in telling girls they’re beautiful as part of a balanced diet of compliments. Being called beautiful doesn’t have to be everything, but it can’t it be one of many things? Can’t we tell our daughters they’re beautiful, and creative and kind and kick-ass at tap-dancing?
I also don’t think it’s horrific to dress girls in pink or let them play with princess stuff or watch Disney movies, either. And I believe cupcakes can be eaten as special treats. (Singing “happy birthday” into a crudité platter? Please.) Indulging in all of these things in moderation—if these things are what their little hearts desire—need not make our daughters obese, oppressed or delusional in adulthood. The implication that any of them—cupcakes or Barbies—can be our girls’ downfall doesn’t seem to give them, or their parents, enough credit.
Sure, I understand the concerns of today’s heli-parents regarding beauty. It’s a scary age to raise a little girl. This is a world in which Kylie Jenner plumps her lips with fillers before her 18th birthday and conventionally beautiful models like Gigi Hadid defend their “curviness” from “haters” on Instagram.
But even though overthinking parents may mean well, their actions can backfire. As Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, wrote in TIME: “We overhelp so as not to disadvantage them, yet they’re disadvantaged because we do so much.”
I’m going to keep telling my daughter she’s beautiful, and I may never stop. But I’ll also keep calling her many other things. When she sang Eve’s “No, No, No” (a trick she learned from her wonderful, musically-inclined daycare teacher), I laughed and told her she’s very funny. When she recently chose to color a cat in her coloring book bright, cherry red, I told her that was really cool. When she indulges me with a hug, I tell her she is a such a good and kind and sweet girl. Mainly, I clap and coo “Yay!”
Most times when I compliment my daughter, she beams. At her spritely age, she seems to delight in it. She hasn’t yet learned that accepting a compliment and owning your strengths as a woman can be (rather unfairly) considered unattractive. She’s not yet (hopefully will never be?) like one of the hardened women captured brilliantly by Amy Schumer’s “Compliments” sketch. (“You dyed your hair! It looks amazing!” one woman tells another played by Abby Elliot. Her response: “No. I tried to look like Kate Hudson and ended up looking like a golden retriever’s dingleberry.”)
Being called beautiful is one of many compliments that seems to register as love to her. To suggest to toddlers and children that it’s loaded with potentially damaging societal subtext, could tarnish their budding body image and potentially lead to eating disorders in adolescence (especially if it’s doled out in moderation) feels like projection to me.
Of course, the compliments that work for us now may not fly later, and I know there is no “best way” to a compliment a little girl—it depends on the girl. I can’t promise I won’t make mistakes and recalibrate, but for now, my compliments are spontaneous, and they come right from the gut. I don’t want to overthink or engineer them. And I certainly don’t want to be told the best way to deliver them to my beautiful, smart little girl.
Michelle Ruiz is a writer and contributing editor to Vogue.com.