It’s hard to raise daughters. The world has lots of outdated expectations for girls, cultural messaging profoundly focuses on the shape of their bodies, and the value of their looks as a comment on their overall worth. Guiding them through their adolescence and puberty with their self-esteem intact is no easy task. To make matters worse, well-meaning parents often resort to common phrases that try to explain away bad behaviors or boost confidence. These phrases can actually do more harm than good says family therapist Dr. Laura Froyen, Ph.D. Here, per Froyen, are six phrases parents should avoid saying to their daughter.
“He’s Bullying You Because He Likes You.”
According to Froyen, this is one of the most damaging messages parents can give their daughters. Girls need to know early on that if people like them they should be treated with dignity and respect. “Saying that a boy is mean because he likes you teaches kids what to expect in romantic relationships,” she says. In other words, it makes girls think that aggression is affection and presses romantic expectations onto children. Parents would do best to put this phrase to bed.
It’s not so much the intention of this phrase but how overused it is. “We teach girls early on to put their feelings, their wants, and their needs last,” says Froyen. “That creates young adults and women who don’t want to rock the boat, stand up for themselves, and who don’t ask their partners for what they want or feel confident in setting boundaries with the people in their lives, because we’ve socialized them so early to be nice.” This doesn’t mean kids should not have good manners. Forcing them to be nice instead of asking them to notice how someone else would feel if someone stole their toy, for example, doesn’t allow for introspection. “Have them be a little bit more introspective or aware of what’s going on around them, rather than having that blanket directive of being nice.”
“Boys Will Be Boys.”
This old chestnut is harmful for a number of reasons. But, when girls hear it, it can make them feel very powerless to enact any change or set boundaries. “That message tells girls that if they set boundaries with a boy — like if they don’t want to be chased on the playground— that boys don’t need to listen,” says Froyen. “Boys should have the same expectations for responsibility taking as girls. It’s really harmful to girls to consistently let boys off the hook for their behavior.”
Listen: saying good job isn’t wrong. Of course it isn’t. But the problem with this phrase, per Froyen, is its vagueness. “Unspecific praise simply isn’t helpful to kids most of the time,” she says. “It also focuses on the outcome, rather than the process or effort involved.” Froyen offers an example: If your kid has worked on a math problem that they maybe had a hard time with but kept working on and you said, Oh, good job!,’ you’re really not paying attention to the fact that this was hard and that the kid put a lot of effort into it. “It doesn’t focus on the tenacity or the grit,” she says.
“You Look Thin!”
Commenting on a girl’s body in any context, negative or positive, is ultimately harmful to kids. “What the research is showing right now is that any comment on a child’s appearance has the potential to be destructive for a child’s body image, particularly for girls,” says Froyen. “It draw your child’s awareness to their appearance as a thing that matters. They’re in a world where they are inundated with messages.” What’s a better option? Offer Froyen: “If we’re out in the world and people call my daughter beautiful, I say, ‘Yes. And she is strong and she loves talking about fairies.’” It’s about diverting attention to what really should matter.
“You’re So Pretty.”
“Lots of well-meaning parents say this because they mean it, and they want to boost their child’s confidence,” says Froyen. “But research shows that it really backfires in a big way. It starts young girls down the pathway of thinking that appearance is an important thing, that it matters for their self-worth, and that they need to rely on external validation for their self-worth.” Froyen says that the world will comment on your daughter’s appearance more than enough. Parents need to be some of the very few people who won’t comment on their appearance, and make it abundantly clear that it has nothing to do with her worth as a person.