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How to Talk to Girls

When a very young Lisa Bloom noticed the drugstore had an aisle for “Girls’ Toys” (dolls, toy vacuum cleaners and dress-up clothes) and “Boys’ Toys” (guns, cars and money) she urged her mother, prominent feminist attorney Gloria Allred, to sue. To this day, the store simply marks the aisles “Toys.”

Bloom grew up and became a lawyer herself. Working as a television legal analyst she became concerned that trivial distractions with celebrity scandals were taking our collective attention away from things that really matter. So last year she wrote Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World and it struck a chord quickly becoming a New York Times bestseller. In this Q&A, Bloom talks about concrete ways to engage with girls that don’t revolve around their looks.

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What is the harm in telling a girl she’s cute?

We have to have some context for this. All by itself in a vacuum there’s no harm in it. But we live in a culture where the beauty industry bombards females of all ages, including preschool girls, with the message that what they look like is the most important thing. So when we begin a conversation with a girl about what she looks like, which is how most of us begin talking to girls, (what they’re wearing, their hair, their nails, how cute they are) we often don’t even move on to anything else. I decided to forge off in a different direction, and avoid all of that, and instead talk to them eye-to-eye about what’s going on in their head. I start with books and the themes that jump out of them. Take 'Purplicious' as an example. Mean kids and peer pressure are at the core of that book. I would ask: 'Have you ever experienced that? What happened? How can we help kids be nicer? Do you like to do things that are different? Wouldn't it be boring if everyone was exactly the same?'

How should you talk to girls about beauty and their own beauty?

I’ve always told my daughter she’s beautiful but it’s more important to me what’s going on in her mind. Many of us have lives that aren’t balanced. We know more about lip plumpers than what’s going on with our local city council, we know more about the Kardashians than we do about the wars we are in. Since we have a multi-billion-dollar beauty industry beating the drum that what we look like is so important, I want to be a voice in the other direction saying, 'It’s nice to look good, but it’s not all that important.'

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How can parents steer their girls toward positive role models?

The good news for moms is that every study shows that your kids’ No. 1 role mode is you. So a lot of moms are concerned about Lindsay Lohan and Snookie or any of these terrible role models for women, but how mom behaves is far more significant to the kind of person her daughter’s going be. So if mom is more obsessed with being thin, for example, that’s going to have much more of an effect on her daughter. If mom sits and reads for pleasure, her daughter is six times more likely to read for pleasure, and she’ll do better in school. I have a lot of prescriptions in my books for things parents can do, but the most important thing is to be a good role model, to walk the walk, to be the kind of person you want your child to grow up to be.

Do you have any concrete ideas about princess culture and the impact of those fairytales on girls? Should we ban all Disney?

It's a question of balance. My daughter was allowed some of the princess silliness—dressing up in her Belle costume, going to Disneyland, watching some videos. But we also spent a lot of time reading books together that had nothing to do with princesses. We went to the park and threw a ball around. We talked about what was in the news. She rode her bike in her beloved overalls, and went with me to the homeless shelter to distribute food. I'm Mom, and I have the power to turn off the crap when it became too much. I'm a big fan of the 'off' button. Use it.

How do parents of pretty girls respond to compliments without seeming ungracious?

We do always want to be gracious. If someone is offering me or my child a compliment, I want to take it in the spirit in which it’s offered and be appreciative. So if someone says, 'Oh your daughter is very pretty,' I’ll say thank you. But I’m not going to encourage a lot more discussion about it. I might add, 'and she’s very smart,' or, 'and she’s a great reader,' or, 'she’s a wonderful painter,' or, 'she plays second base,' or throw in something she has more control over.

Studies show that your children will do better when you praise your children’s efforts. It’s much more important to say 'I’m so impressed that you sat through that hard math assignment until the end,' instead of saying, 'you’re smart.' If they’re constantly told they’re smart, they won’t try as hard at school.

Any books you can recommend for parents that can help frame the conversation?

Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is definitely a great book for parents about the princess culture. And The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah Rhode.

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