9 Tips to Raising a Confident Girl

Oct. 12, 2011

How to talk to your daughter so she knows she's smart, funny, kind -- and oh right, beautiful

Your mom thinks you make great meatballs and have a knack for making friends. Oh yeah, she also thinks you're beautiful, the most beautiful person in the room at any time. She's been saying this since you were born.

Is this so wrong? You're the friendly, beautiful meatball maker. But it's that word "beautiful" we women always get hung up on. It's the word we've heard since we can remember while our brothers and guy friends are called "cool" and "awesome" -- adjectives more about them as people than their appearance.

Is this an issue? 54% of Care.com poll respondents say they typically call their daughter "beautiful" over "sweet" and "smart" when they greet them. So, are the "pretty dress" and "gorgeous hair" comments we hear as toddlers the reason we constantly critique ourselves -- and our girlfriends?

"We can barely go anywhere without someone -- a waitress, a vendor -- referring to my girls as 'princesses' or telling them that they are beautiful," says Sari Fisher of Marlboro, NJ, and the mom of two girls ages 5 and 2.

Sound familiar? "There's nothing wrong with helping your daughter feel good about her exterior but she needs to know that it is not enough -- looks change," says  psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, Psy.D., Care.com's parenting expert. "There are lots of beautiful people in the world so it's important to also be a beautiful person."

In an effort to help you raise the next generation of strong, confident -- and yes, beautiful women, Care.com asked the Dr. Ludwig and Boston-based psychotherapist Karen Ruskin, Psy.D, author of The 9 Key Techniques for Raising Respectful Children Who Make Responsible Choices -- how we raise our daughters to truly know they're beautiful -- so they can focus on the other things.

And here's the good news: You don't need to stifle your thoughts about how adorable she looks in that poufy tutu or her gorgeous eyes. It's true! (But those things are only part of her loveliness.)

1. Tell her she is beautiful. Do not ignore your daughter's appearance, just talk about in a way that compliments her mind. Instead of saying, "Your hair is pretty" or "Your shirt is pretty," comment on her choice to create something beautiful rather than just being beautiful, suggests Dr. Ruskin. Let her know you love how she put together her outfit or how she chose to style her hair. Depending on her age, you can also impart the knowledge that no matter how stylish or hip you look, the way you carry yourself and the person you are makes the biggest statement and overrides outward appearance.

2. Cater to her. "Hype up things you sense she already feels good about," says Dr. Ludwig. "It shows you have taken the time to figure out what kind of person she is." When you compliment these aspects of her personality it reinforces the confidence is she already building for herself. It might be how excited she was to get a solo in the school play or how good a friend she was to give Zoe a hug when she was crying.

3. Praise her. As a parent there are endless things you love about your child. Tell her! It's so easy to tell her she looks pretty or she did a good job. Now dig deeper and get specific. "I'm so proud that you finished that book all by yourself but asked for help when you needed it!"; " You spoke so nicely with Grandma and Grandpa on the phone and it made them -- and me -- feel so happy. I hope it makes you feel happy, too!" "Recognize then verbalize what is good about her beyond looks she will incorporate it into her self-esteem," says Dr. Ludwig.

4. Exaggerate your differences. Girls sometimes feel pressure to be just like their moms. And moms might not even realize that they are pushing their desires on their daughters. So point out to her how she is different than you in positive ways. If you are known for keeping a messy desk, comment on how neat and organized she is with her belongings. Does she always remember people's birthdays while you are the Queen of Belated Emails? Tell her you wish you had the ability to remember dates and to be so thoughtful. When she hears how you wish you had her good qualities, she will strive to expand upon them.

5. Accept compliments. Both Drs. Ludwig and Ruskin agree: You can't stop someone from giving a compliment but you can use the moment to teach your daughter about herself. As much as you want to jump in and add: "She's not only pretty but she won the spelling bee!" you don't want to sound like you're bragging. "Your daughter needs a healthy balance of compliments so let her enjoy them," says Dr. Ruskin. Afterwards, share a special moment with your daughter where you remind her that she is not just pretty, but you know she is smart, too. And if you must, it's ok to occasionally let the other person know: "Thank you! She's also an excellent soccer player."

This goes for yourself too, Momma. When someone showers you with a compliment in front of your kids, accept it gracefully. And if the good words are about your looks? Thank the person and move on. But be sure to talk with your daughter later about how you feel beautiful in ways other than your face or clothes.

6. Start young. And we mean really young, as in in-utero. Pregnant women develop relationships with their growing babies and if they know the child's gender, they talk to them and think about them differently. You might dream about all the pretty clothes you will buy for your daughter and about how beautiful she will be. Dr. Ruskin suggests you shake up these expectations. You don't need to picture your daughter as a rock climbing instructor or a lead scientist finding the cure for cancer, but daydream about all the possibilities she will have in life and all the wonderful personality traits she will have -- aside from looking cute in baby jeggings.

7. Change your vocab. Retrain your brain to use the word "smart" from the very beginning. Sure the dress you just put on her is adorable, but did she lift up her arms when it came time to slip the frock over her head? Tell her: "You're so smart!" Whether it's figuring out where to put a puzzle piece or identifying her nose, telling her she is smart will start to sink in. Your daughter will become aware of the compliment, learn it about herself and eventually mimic your words, says Dr. Ruskin. And then one day she will know it's the truth.

8. Monitor your self-criticism. It might not seem like your kids are listening when beds never get made, toys aren't shared and homework is left hanging, but our words really do make it past their iPod ear buds. If you say, "Mommy is putting on makeup to look pretty," your daughter will come to understand that you are concerned about your looks. Use your words and actions to teach her that makeup and clothes are fun ways to play with your appearance but you don't need them to be beautiful you simply want to use them in a creative way.

And stop asking "Do I look good (fat, pretty, ok, thin)?" when kids are in earshot. You might question your appearance but you don't have to share it. Plus, curbing these negative thoughts might stop them in your mind all together. Everyone wins!

9. Get everyone on board. Now that you have a game plan, it's important to share your approach with your nanny, regular babysitters or caretakers. If you have a regularly scheduled meeting with your nanny (like a weekly sit-down) share these words of wisdom or print this article. It's important for your daughter to see and hear all her role models (especially those college-age sitters!) acting and feeling the same way.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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