Your kids are so cute. Our kids are so cute. Sometimes they are so goddamn darling that we want to literally rip them to pieces and consume every last crumb. Sometimes the twirling ballerina is so breathtaking that our breath actually does leave our bodies. Their eyes so wide, so bright, so gorgeous that the angels sing.
At times like these, as loving, adoring parents the words come tumbling out, showering their downy heads,You are so beautiful! Cute! Awesome! Incredible! Pretty pretty pretty! It's true they are, and it feels not only natural to let them know, to shout to the heavens our regard and esteem, but also good for them.
But the thing is, it's not.
Alfie Kohn's book talks about praise, and after reading it I felt like punching myself in the stomach for every "Good job!" I ever slung at the park and elsewhere in the years preceding. His argument is rock solid. His argument is inarguable. His argument makes sense, both on a guttural, emotional level, and an academic one. Praise backfires, praise is an arm of conditional love.
"The more we say "Good job!" the worse the child comes to feel about himself, and the more praise he needs." " As a result of praise, children become less able or willing to take pride in their own accomplishments - or to decide what IS an accomplishment. In extreme cases, they can turn into "praise junkies" who, even as adults, continue to rely on other people for validation..."
Statements like these make me want to drop praise like a ton of bricks and walk away forever. You don't have to tell me twice. I want my kids to feel good about themselves, to work and play based on intrinsic motivation not because they are doggedly searching for my approval.
But then there is cuteness. Can't it be excluded from the above? Please? Sadly, I think not. And with girls especially, I think you should quickly cut off your lips before you praise them for their appearance.
Okay that's extreme, but let's look at the material we are working with, let's look at what a young girl/woman is going to face in her lifetime, the magazines, the music videos, the advertisements, her peers. Do we really want to set them up now to look outside themselves for validation for their appearance? A girl's mom says she looks cute and that feels good, so the next morning the girl tries for that again. Do I look pretty and cute in this outfit too Mom? Fast forward only ten years and it's not Mom she's looking to to tell her wether or not she looks pretty anymore.
And what she looks toward, magazines and videos, will NOT tell her she looks good. They will tell her her boobs are too small and her armpits too smelly. And furthermore, that she should do something about that, change who she is, how she looks, and what she smells like if she wants to come even close to validation.
Yesterday Echo came to me, eyelashes batting, dressed to the nines in a sparkly green tutu, so sun-dappled and precious as to cause suffering, and asked: Do you like what I picked out Mom? and I wanted to say: I think you are the most beautiful human being I have ever seen in my entire life. You are drop dead gorgeous. But instead I said: Oh! You picked the long green shirt and the sparkly green skirt huh? Do you just love it?
I wasn't satisfied.
But SHE WAS.
She wanted to be seen. She wanted me to notice her delight. That's it. She did not want me to decide for her if it was pretty, she was already sure of that. If I had doled out the "Beautiful!" "So pretty!", she probably would have liked it, but subconsciously my comment would remain with her and the next time she selected her clothes, instead of reaching assuredly for what she knows with certainty is pretty, she might instead wonder "Is this pretty?" A seemingly loving comment is like a little invisible time bomb, an insidious undetectable poison that robs her of her own knowing and supplants it with a guessing and a striving.
There are times when the same question arrives: Do you like this Mom? and the answer is NO! There are times when the outfit selected is completely and utterly heinous - stained pajama pants and an Elmo tank, an outfit that makes me cringe and dread leaving the house. But to watch her is to watch a queen. The Elmo tank feels just right on her shoulders and the pants fill her with warmth thinking of the dear friend that passed those along. She descends the stairs with sparkles dancing about her head, so sure.
So fucking sure of herself.
My need to express my esteem, or my opinion of her cuteness is less important than that.
Other times Echo drags out the makeup case and paints herself up. When she's done she looks up and says: What do you think? The last time she asked the lipstick was a sparkly lavender line squiggled well above her lip. I said: Uh huh!.
And at night when I wash her face I refrain from: You're such a dirty girl! My goodness you've got the whole park on here! You filthy little monkey! If she objects to my ministrations, I explain that I'd rather get the stuff on her face off so that it doesn't slough off onto the bed. I give her information instead of my opinion. I'd rather she forget she had a face at all other than as a receptacle for kisses and a smooth spot to feel the Spring breeze.
When we are leaving the house for a fancy dinner we tell the girls where we are going and what it's like there. We ask, after receiving that information, if they are satisfied with their attire and appearance. If not they change, if so they remain as they are. It might mean a big swallow for the parents, a need for some self-empathy and a pep talk, in order to enter a restaurant with girls with tangly hair or outfits that involve seventeen layers of floral skirts, but it's worth it.
We are talking about their sense of self. Their whole sense of self. It's worth it.
To be honest, there are times when we speak on impulse and say: Yes, I do like that outfit! and although I think this is a step above the general declaration of beauty or prettiness in that it clarifies that our opinion is just that, an opinion not a decree, we don't feel entirely good about this response. We quickly try to turn it back around, placing the focus back on their own opinion with: Do YOU like it? These qualified statements could perhaps be better looked at as a stepping stone, a way of weaning ourselves from outright praise and toward loving, supportive, neutrality.
I received this email recently:
There's been a lot of discussion in these parts lately about how issues of body image jive with the whole no praise/punishment philosophy... we like the idea of simply limiting comments about how children look to a minimum, and yet many of us yearned to hear our parents (fathers especially) call us beautiful growing up and never did...
It's true. What our parents say matters. A lot. So, many of us think it best to say lots of good things to our kids. Looking back we would have liked our fathers and mothers to tell us how beautiful they saw us to be, but I want to make the argument that we only think we wanted that, in part because we were taught through conditional parenting to want that. What I think we really wanted, what we all still want, what everyone wants, is to be noticed, to be loved and accepted. And as girls we look for this in the arena of looks, because well, let's face it, that's where women have historically had any hope of getting noticed.
Imagine for a moment if your dad or your mom, when you got yourself all gussied up for the prom did not say: Oh how beautiful you are darling! (Giving the dress credit for your beauty), or, Oh, Honey, let me get that strap for you. You can't go to the dance with these threads hanging down... (adjusting the details of your appearance so that you, finally, now, are beautiful or acceptable) but instead they said:
You're all ready huh? Let me get a good look at you... Oh how I love you.
My friend Kris and I have a pact not to mention or praise one another's appearance. I have found insane comfort and freedom in this. I am a logical person with high self-esteem, but when someone makes a comment on my appearance (You look fantastic today! Oh wow, have you lost weight? What a cute dress, it's really flattering on you!) at first I am thrilled and then these tiny voices I didn't even know were there pop up. What did I look like yesterday that sets me up to look fantastic today? Was I like totally fat the last time we saw each other? Flattering? Gosh, I guess that means some of my other outfits are a little less than flattering. I wonder which ones... I think I want praise but then I realize it's the flip side of criticism, it's in the same family, a family I want nothing to do with.
It's been a year since Kris and I made our pact and when I am with her I feel fantastic, and not because I happened to wear an outfit that pleases her, but because she loves me. She sees me. Maybe she does like how I look on most days and I know this, I feel this, because I feel her unconditional love. Unconditional love can make anyone feel drop dead gorgeous.
What if none of us ever mentioned appearance? What would we choose to wear? What would we think about our butts? Would I even notice the lines around my eyes? Would anyone wear skinny jeans?
What if we let our daughters be their own mirrors, how beautiful they would feel.
Want more? Check out Keeping it to Myself