“Hey, What Are You Reading?” Some Thoughts on Talking to Children

By Katie, 5:48 am

“What a pretty girl you are!”

“That’s a beautiful dress you have on!”

“What gorgeous eyes you have!”

 (Source)

By now you may have read Lisa Bloom’s Huffington Post article about how to talk to little girls. In it, she discusses the importance of engaging little girls in conversations that go beyond their physical appearance. Her theory is that constantly praising children solely on the basis of looks sets them up for a negative body image down the road. In Bloom’s words:

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

Bloom goes on to share a wonderful little story of how she deeply connected with a friend’s five-year-old daughter after asking her the question, “Hey, what are you reading?”

Here are my initial reactions:

1. Bloom’s take on this is refreshing. Usually the message is to make sure we’re telling little girls they’re beautiful no matter what. We try to build them up in the hopes that in the future they’ll be saved from the oh-so-common struggle of feeling bad about the way we look.

Here, however, the idea isn’t to emphasize that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, but rather to focus on the fact that our looks are only a small part of our identities. If we teach little girls from the beginning that their value lies far beyond their hair or their weight or their clothing, those things might be a lot less stressful down the road. When the little girls become women, they might not miss out on all the joys life has to offer because they’re stuck in a sea of body self-consciousness.

2. My second thought is that I wish Bloom had gone further in her article. I think she makes some great points, but limits their potential. For example, what about little boys? While we know that society’s pressures on girls and boys are different, that doesn’t mean that boys are immune. It also doesn’t mean that the realm of appearances is the only one through which we treat people as one-dimensional.

The message, really, is that when we talk to children – no matter what their gender – we should make a conscious effort not to focus solely on a single trait. That sends the message that one part of their identity means more than the others; it teaches the child to chop up the pieces of themselves rather than appreciate the whole. And isn’t that what so many of us struggle with now? Recognizing and appreciating our entire selves, instead of scrutizing and obsessing over one tiny facet?

Besides, children are fascinating creatures. A conversation about their favorite book or what games they enjoy sounds way more interesting than one about how adorable their outfit is.

Do you think the ways we tend to speak to little children are problematic? Or do you think both Bloom and I are overreacting?

13 Responses to ““Hey, What Are You Reading?” Some Thoughts on Talking to Children”

  1. I haven’t read the article but will now. I think the points you raise are interesting and wonder if she has written more on the topic on other platforms. Perhaps she was limited by forces beyond her control. This is a very real and important topic.

    • Katie says:

      You’re probably right that the scope of her article was out of her hands. I just keep hearing about boys/men who struggle with body image issues, and I don’t want their stories to be left out of the conversation.

  2. PJ says:

    No I don’t think you’re overreacting at all. I think that by engaging children only on how they look is problematic. Fine if it’s occassionally or you don’t really know the child and are looking for an easy conversation starter – but if it’s your own child and every conversation starts with a comment about their appearance it is only natural to assume that they will being to believe that this is the first and most important thing about them. Yes, presentation is important in the world, but not in the home. Love and acceptance and apprecitation of all their wonderful qualities is far more important than whether they are wearing a pretty dress today.

    • Katie says:

      Right. It’s one thing if you don’t know the child and hence don’t know anything about them except what you can see, and perhaps that’s where a lot of these comments stem from. But it’s another thing if you know all of the child’s other qualities and yet still focus on the external.

  3. McKella says:

    I think people resort to complimenting (or criticizing) appearances because they’re easy to see and require no digging below the surface. Sometimes people are afraid to connect to others, especially children, because that requires going into unknown territory. Thoughts and talents, things that really matter aren’t as obvious, so we simply say “I love your haircut!”

  4. I had the same thoughts as you. You are right on base. We need to open the dialogues to touch those talking points, and I do agree this is a wonderful starting point. I am glad at least there is ONE article, but there needs to be more, regularly, and often talking about the full range of how to talk to our “children”

  5. The blogging world is so small sometimes! lol Another blog that I love also wrote about this, and I really liked her perspective on it, so I posted today in response to her post. Bottom line: I agree with and support where the article writer is coming from but also feel there is a more balanced approach to be had than her seemingly all-or-nothing one. I still believe in telling girls – young and old – that they are beautiful and teaching that beauty comes in many different forms. It’s still something most girls crave hearing in addition to all the other inner qualities they should be complimented on. I believe in complimenting girls (and boys) on ALL aspects of what makes them “them.” :)

    http://blog.theclosetnarcissist.com/2011/07/how-to-talk-to-little-girls-from.html

  6. MK says:

    I think that what is truly appropriate and kind in adult conversation is also right for conversations with children — if you compliment a person, compliment something they have done or chosen, not what they are. “That’s a pretty dress/cool shoes you’ve chosen” and “you studied really hard for that test/that was a good catch” instead of “you’re so pretty today” and “you’re so smart/you’re so strong/athletic.”

    When you know people better, including children, the conversation can change and get deeper. But the standard “she’s so pretty/ he’s so strong” is not only problematic, it’s frankly kind of dull.

    • MK, I’m 100% with you on this. Although I do want to give people token points for at least attempting to directly connect to children, even on a surface level, rather that to the parent “How cute she is, how old is she, etc.” as if the child doesn’t have ears and lips.

      And there is the danger of complimenting a child on the clothes they’ve chosen, of starting up WWIII – if they insisted on wearing the item and Mom didn’t want them to, or vice versa.

  7. Bubu says:

    I read and enjoyed the article too but also agree there is more that can be said. As the mother of two boys, I often hear “boys don’t like to read” and things like that, so even if not for body-awareness issues, I think it’s good to encourage ANY kids to read and be excited about reading (and for the record, I have two bookworms on my hands!). But on the flip side, there are often shy, bookish kids who are never told they are cute or pretty and all the focus is on the brains and academic accomplishments, and this is again, as you say, focusing on just one dimension of their personality.

  8. Alexis says:

    I have no patience for the huffington post so I won’t be reading that article. What I found from talking to the public for 30 years, including kids, is a complement is a great conversation started. As a hairdresser I had to make new clients of all ages feel comfortable very quickly, so telling them I like something about them was the best way. This opened the door to conversation.
    BTW, I can’t imagine telling a child I just met, Wow, you look really smart. You must like to read? Kids are smart! Their comebacks to lame attempts to engage them are surprising. Sometimes even shocking. lol.

  9. I long to have been told as a child that I was beautiful.

  10. Sarah says:

    Were you the one who posted the Huffington Post article on Twitter? I read the whole thing and thought the author brought up some really interesting and valid points. I’m grateful for the people (like you!) who pass on these kinds of things and lead me to think about things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

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