by Steve Bishop
Recently, I read an article by Lisa Bloom entitled, "How to Talk to Little Girls." In the article, Bloom recounts an instance when she encountered a friend's daughter and instinctively wanted to squeal, "You are so cute. Look at you! Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing." However, after further thought, she decided to restrain herself from her first impulse and instead speak to her about something other than her outward appearance.
In light of this and similar situations, Bloom goes on to argue that our culture needs to learn how to speak to girls in a way that doesn't communicate that their appearance is the first thing we notice about them. Her main justifications for this argument include shocking statistics, like the ABC News report that concluded that "nearly half of all three-to six-year-old girls worry about being fat." Or the revelation that she cites in her book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, that "15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick regularly." Other devastating statistics include the fact that "eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down and 25 percent of young American women would rather win America's Next Top Model than a Nobel Peace Prize."
As the father of a young girl, my first reaction to this article was to worry. Ever since my daughter was born, I have praised her, not because she is really intelligent (although I can already tell she is!), but because she is the most beautiful baby girl I have ever seen. On the day she was born, I looked at my wife with tears in my eyes and said, "She is so beautiful! She has the most amazing cheeks and big blue eyes!" When we brought her home from the hospital and our friends and family came to visit, they would say, "She is just adorable." And I would respond, "I KNOW, ISN'T SHE!! SHE IS SO BEAUTIFUL." In fact, every day since she entered this world, I have thought in my head, "You are so beautiful, daughter!"
When I read this article, I thought: "Are my comments going to encourage Emilie to be a girl who would rather be 'hot than smart?'" I immediately began looking 15-16 years down the road. I pictured her wearing make-up, stressing over how her hair looks, and buying shorts with the words "Flirt" on them. The thought made my heart race and my forehead perspire. If I keep on parenting like this, could I do serious damage to my daughter?
After further reflection, I am pretty sure that my praise is not leading her down the path of becoming the future winner (because she would win, if she were on it) of America's Next Top Model. Bloom's article is a helpful reminder that we should not only be focused on praising our girls for their appearance and a call to carefully consider how our words influence children. However, I think the link the author is making is ultimately unfounded. Nowhere does she demonstrate the correlation between innocently praising our daughters and the stunning statistics about America's young women. It seems just as likely to me that a little girl who never gets praise for her outward beauty will also be confused and self-conscious about her appearance. Moreover, I think there are better explanations for these statistics. So, I think we need a more nuanced approach to speaking to girls that includes affirming their beauty.
After reading this article and thinking about this subject, the question that kept coming to my mind was, “How do I want other people to talk to my daughter?” More importantly, since I am raising her in the context of a community of believers, “How do I want my church community to talk to Emilie?”
I think this is a very important question for us to consider as our church continues to grow. When little girls come into our community, we want them to know and experience the love that Jesus has for them. (After all, our goal is to "invite Chicago to feast richly on the love of Jesus.") One of the most significant ways we can demonstrate that love is through our speech.
So, I came up with a few thoughts of my own about how we should speak to little girls. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list; just some thoughts that initially came to my mind.
1. Speak to little girls about their outward appearance. It is important for a little girl to be affirmed in their outward appearance. Of course you can go overboard, but it doesn't negate the fact that girls like to hear from others that they are beautiful. This is consistent with our belief that God uniquely created each of our children. When we look at our children, we are looking at a unique creation of the Creator! Indeed, that is a beautiful thing.
2. Speak to little girls about more than their outward appearance. There are so many other things that you should and could talk about with a little girl. The example that the author used was books. Little girls love books. They also love toys and cartoons and playing with their friends. Talk to them about that, too.
Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have taught that a woman’s beauty “should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3.3-4). This helps us see that women and girls are more than their appearance. We should be doing all we can to know, understand, and encourage that inner self to become more and more beautiful.
3. Think before you speak to little girls. This is a general rule that everyone should abide by no matter who they are speaking to. But it is especially important with little girls. In my experience, little girls pay close attention to what you say. They will be either encouraged or discouraged by your words. The letter of James encourages us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Like the author of the article I read did, take a few seconds and think before you speak.
4. Speak to little girls differently in different seasons. At some points in their life, girls will struggle with their outward appearance. In those seasons, it can make a big difference to hear (especially from a loved one) that they are beautiful. In other seasons, appearance can be the furthest thing from their mind. So, be on the lookout for how they are doing in this area.
This is where I am in my thinking about how I want to speak to my beautiful baby girl. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject. May we continue to work together to express to all of our little girls that they are so beautiful!