August 2, 2011

Talking to Girls and the Constrained Compliment

I received a link via e-mail from a friend that I adored back in Oregon and who has since moved on to sunny Santa Barbara.  I  love her dearly, but sadly we don't get to chat or correspond all that often anymore.  You know.  Life just happens.  So it struck me to receive an e-mail from her with this link and a simple word: "Thoughts?"  Kerry is one of those friends who approaches you with what seems like a request for advice, but by the time you're done dispensing advice, you find that she's guided you on a little mini self-exploration expedition.  So I was more than a little eager to see what the magic link contained. 

I tell her she's got an awesome hat AND that her poetry blows my mind.
It was a link to this post called How to Talk to Little Girls.  Interesting.  The blogger just finished reading a book by the same title in which she gathered a few pearls of wisdom about talking to girls.  I have not read the book myself, but the gist of it seems to be - at least according to this blogger - that we should repress our natural reflex to tell little girls how adorable they are and instead ask them what they are reading or something similar.  Nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I quite like the idea and plan to use it! 

I tell her that she's beautiful and that her work on bacteria cultures could change the world!
But this idea was coupled with the notion that by complimenting girls on their super cuteness, we deprive them of self worth.  This is supported with a quote from the book that states, "Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything," This is where they lose me. 

Do we really have to lie and say that looks aren't usually the first thing we notice?  Because we generally see someone before we ever get a chance to engage them in conversation. That's not a crime.  And pretending like you noticed someone's sparkling personality before they ever had a chance to speak to you seems contrived and dishonest.  Girls have gotten over the idea that they have to choose between  being smart or pretty.  I think boys have gotten over it as well.  Problem solved, right?  So why do we still have books coming out that pretend like you can make a pretty girl stop caring about her intellect or her kindness simply by complimenting her glitter shoes? 

I tell her that she makes that potato sack look good and that her creative castle design is impressive.

Isn't assuming that a girl needs to be asked about books in order for her to recognize the value of her intellect a sign that you don't recognize her intellect at all?  Girls are too smart to believe that you noticing their adorable hairstyle before they've ever said a word to you means that you won't value their intellect once they have a chance to demonstrate it. 

I suppose I am being slightly over critical of this notion, but I just tire so quickly of books, blogs and articles that make people feel bad for acting on their best intentions.  Now we shouldn't give compliments to little girls?  How do things like the Dove campaign for Real Beauty and this sort of book/blog phenomenon find success simultaneously?  How do we reconcile a recognition of the need for girls to feel beautiful with the idea that we shouldn't tell girls that they are beautiful because it might ruin them?  Life is confusing enough without having to sensor your compliments and happy thoughts.  The Dove campaign is evidence that the world will convince our little girls that they aren't beautiful soon enough.  Why not build them up while they are still listening and the world hasn't gotten its grimy fingers on them yet?

I tell her that she rocked the runway and her dress made from  maps of ancient Italy shows everyone how glamorous history can be.
I don't know.  Maybe there is some psychological aspect of a compliment that I don't understand because I haven't read the book.  Maybe they are damaging in a way I haven't thought of yet.  If so, my family is wreaking a lot of havoc.  I always tell the kids to give a compliment any time they see something they appreciate, no matter how shy they feel or how silly the compliment seems, because everyone likes to hear something nice about themselves.  One day, when we had been discussing this, Haven looked at me as I was paying our bill at the grocery store and said, "Momma, you are just so beautiful today!"  The checkout girl smiled and said how sweet he was and what a lucky mom I was.  Then Haven looked at her and said, "My mom taught me to say that!"  I was so embarrassed.  He meant that I had taught him to be generous and reckless with his compliments, but the checkout girl had to have thought he meant that I had told him to tell me that I'm beautiful!  Ooops!  Okay, so compliments can go awry, but that's pretty unusual. 

I tell her what a beautiful farm girl she is and how cool it is that she knows how to grow peas.

Anyway, I totally plan to ask the next pretty little girl I see what she's reading these days, because that is an adorable idea.  But maybe I'll ask after I've noted her pretty smile.  And maybe the reason behind my question will not be to tell her what I think she should value, or what I value in her, but simply to treat her like a complex and complete person with interest and emotional needs that are likely not that different from my own.

As you can see, I compliment my girl on her looks and her smarts and her creativity and her work ethic and she, thus far, is doing okay.  Now quick, go tell a little girl how pretty she is!


  1. Kristin Walker Carlton2.8.11

    I think compliments are very important. I also think it is important to tell a girl she is beautiful but to balance it with another none physical compliment that you have done. As someone who has counseled many girls dealing with body issues and as someone who fought body image issues, I know both the importance and danger of comments about a girl's looks. I feel when we balance the comments we are building up our daughter's to be strong, self-assured women..... Teehee... "our daughter's"... I have a daughter, it's still hard to believe.

  2. Tee-hee! You do have a daughter and she's home now! Kristen, I have been loving that baby girl and lamenting her absence in your home for so long, and you have no idea how much joy it brings me, even in far off Utah, to know that the beautiful and intelligent Kristen has brought an equally beautiful and amazing little girl into the world!

    On the topic, I agree that balance is key. And as women or girls (and probably even men or boys, although I can't say from personal experience) we are loaded with insecurities. So compliments about just about anything feel good when we can tell that they are sincere. A kid once complimented me on how well I blew up a balloon, and in that moment, seeing how genuinely impressed he was, I was proud. Silly thing to be proud of, but in the right context, it made me feel happy.

  3. Great thoughts, thank you for sharing them.


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