First things first. This column is not about how beautiful my daughter Emmy is. This is not about oh-my-goodness-please-stop-noticing-my-daughter’s-model-like-breathtaking-beauty. Emmy’s cute. Like every other 8-year-old girl in her class—and beyond.
My concern is this. Often, when we are out and we see my friends, neighbors or co-workers, and they meet Emmy for the first time, often the first words are: You’re so pretty!
And of course it’s not just Emmy. For most little girls, that’s the go-to introductory compliment. I’ve taught Emmy to politely accept the compliment, but it makes me wince.
Of course, it’s wonderful that people feel that way about her, and they mean no harm. But my husband and I purposely don’t say that to Emmy. We will tell her that a particular hairstyle suits her or an outfit she put together is awesome. But we never say anything about her physical beauty. We tell her she is strong, resilient, brave and intelligent. When she overcomes a challenging math lesson, we cheer for her tenacity. When she stands up to a student who has been disrespectful, we cheer her bravery.
Neither of us ever tells her, “You are so pretty.” We want to celebrate the qualities that she controls and broaden her self-esteem. Some would say that telling her she’s beautiful also increases her self-esteem. But I don’t agree. She has no control over what she looks like. And I don’t think she should be congratulated for having a look that passes someone’s test of what pretty looks like.
I also don’t see the same thing done to boys as often. Yes, they will be told they’re handsome. But then they will be asked about the sports or other activities in which they like to participate. When my nephews were young, I hardly ever heard people tell them they were cute or handsome, unless they were particularly dressed up. But I often heard, “What’s your favorite subject in school?” or “I’ll bet you’re fast on the field” or “I’ll bet you’re strong”—things they can control that build their self-esteem.
I know this won’t be a popular opinion. What could possibly be wrong with telling a little girl she is beautiful?
But I hold fast to the idea that all children should be complimented on who they are internally, not externally. Some might say it’s just a natural greeting when you meet a young girl. I say dig deeper. Ask a question. What was the last book the child read? What does she want to be when she grows up? What steps does she need to take to get there? What does she do in her spare time?
When I meet the child of a friend or associate, I don’t make mention of the child’s looks. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to those adorable newborn and toddler munchkins who reduce me to baby talk babble.) But once children reach a certain age, I make a point to ask a question or two about who they are and who they want to be, without defaulting to what they look like and one person’s opinion about whether that look fits the term “pretty” or “beautiful.”
Make no mistake: My daughter Emmy is pretty and beautiful; she’s pretty smart, she’s pretty kind and she’s beautifully talented. In the teenage years, when she goes through puberty and perhaps starts to have self-esteem issues about her looks, I may change my stance. But for now, I want Emmy to know that her beauty lies completely within.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.