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4 Rules for Talking to My Daughter

I've been going back and reading some of my old diary entries from when I was a kid. It's kind of hilarious, diving back into my pre-teen head. But a lot of those entries are also just very sad—glimpses of a girl who didn't like herself all that much and who wasn't receiving as much reinforcement from those around her as she should.

I've always been conscious of the messages I received in childhood and how they formed my own opinions of who I am. As a woman in her 30s now, I like to think I'm pretty strong and confident, but it took a long time to get there. There were a lot of pitfalls I would like to help my daughter avoid, if I can.

Because I want her to have a healthier self-image growing up than I ever did.

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As she enters this stage where she becomes more of a little girl than a baby every day, I am forever conscious of the messages she is receiving from those around her. And I've found myself wanting to intercept some of those messages more than ever before because she's listening now. She's understanding and processing. And I want those people who talk to and around her to understand that their words matter.

I want them to understand they could potentially have a deep impact on the way this little girl I love so dearly grows up to view herself.

So if you want to have a conversation with my daughter, let's establish some ground rules first.

1. Cool it on the "pretty"

I'm trying to ensure my daughter receives the message that she is so much more than pretty.

Like most moms, I am convinced that my daughter is the epitome of beauty. With her olive complexion and her bright, expressive eyes, I often tell people that I could never have made one as pretty as her. So I get why people want to automatically comment on her looks when they see her—because she is freaking adorable!

But if I had my way, I would prefer if the comments on her looks remained at a minimum. Not because she's not pretty, or because I fear her growing up to be vain, but because she is so much more than the image in the mirror—and I want her to grow up knowing that.

Pretty fades. And it's subjective. And little girls who grow up continually receiving the message that pretty is the most valuable thing they have to offer tend to base a whole lot of their self-worth on what others think about their outward appearance. Which I can personally tell you, is a recipe for disaster.

I get that this pretty discussion has been beaten to death online, both by parents and experts, but there still seem to be a lot of people who just don't get it, who automatically default to compliments on looks when talking to little girls. And I get it. I do. So I'm not telling you that you can never tell her she's pretty, I'm just saying, try to balance it out a little, please?

And don't be offended if when you tell her she's pretty, I interject and say, "Thank you! She is! She's also smart and funny and kind. she's a pretty special little girl!" I'm not trying to hurt your feelings or make you feel like a jerk, I'm trying to ensure my daughter receives the message that she is so much more than pretty, which, for the record, is more important to me than your feelings. I would hope, if you care about her, that it would be important to you as well.

2. Her body is off limits

She is getting old enough to understand when everyone around her comments on how "solid" or "chubby" she is.

When my little girl was born, she was only 7 pounds, but by her third month, she was in the 95th percentile for both height and weight. That pattern has continued throughout the last two years, with her always remaining within the 90th and 95th percentiles for both. She's a big little girl, often towering above those in her age range. And people routinely comment on her size for that very reason, mostly because they are always a bit surprised she's not older than she is.

This has been a pattern since that third month, when another mom at the doctor's office looked at me in shock and said, "She's bigger than my 6-month old!" I just smiled and nodded, because … what else can you say? And besides, I loved her healthy rolls.

I still do.

For the record, she is completely proportional and healthy. Her doctor has no concerns, and neither do I. But the commentary on her size has got to stop because she is getting old enough to understand when everyone around her comments on how "solid" or "chubby" she is. I know the intentions are never cruel, but the message those words send absolutely have the power to hurt. So please, just stop. I get that she's a big girl, and it can be surprising to some, but you aren't doing her any favors by commenting on it every time you see her.

3. Go easy on yourself

If you are an important woman in her life, you need to understand that she will be looking to you as well.

It isn't just the messages you send about her that matter—the messages you send about yourself hold weight, as well.

Practically every woman has things about herself she'd want to change, if given the chance. I'm certainly no exception. Even though I have a pretty healthy body image today, I almost always see about 10 pounds that my body could stand to lose, and I avoid wearing shorts at all costs, specifically because I hate my legs.

But I work really hard to not mention those things in front of my daughter, mostly because I know she will grow up looking to me as an example of confidence and healthy body image. And if you are an important woman in her life, you need to understand that she will be looking to you as well. Which means that constantly talking about going on a diet, or needing a boob job, or hating the new wrinkle lines on your face will only send the message that these are things she should be self-conscious of as well.

So how about, you talk instead about yourself the way you would hope she might one day talk about herself. That doesn't mean those insecurities go away. We all have them, and they will likely always endure to some extent or another. But maybe we can help to lessen those insecurities in the next generation. It's possible that by being kinder to ourselves, at least out loud, we can teach them to do the same.

And don't you want to be a part of teaching my little girl to love herself just the way she is?

4. Tread lightly on the teasing

Don't box her into being clumsy before she even has a chance to be anything else.

This is actually a big one that I am working on. I grew up in a home that was pretty big on the teasing (my dad once teased that if I wore white shorts, they could show drive-in movies on my butt), and I honestly never thought much of it. Sure, it shaped me into a sarcastic adult, but I like that about myself. I like that I can hold my own and banter with the best of them, and that I can give a few jabs just as well as I can take them. I always thought it was a sign of my thick skin and my quick wit, and that these were admirable qualities to have.

So it makes sense that my teasing nature would extend to motherhood. Most notably, I have been guilty of making jokes about the fact that my little girl will probably never be an athlete—mostly because she was a late walker and her gross motor skills were a little behind the curve for a while.

Imagine my surprise, though, when one of my best friends called me on it. "Don't put that on her," she scolded. "Don't box her into being clumsy before she even has a chance to be anything else."

Her words scalded me, both because no one likes to be corrected, and because … I realized she was right. My own clumsiness is something I have forever been self-conscious of. I hate how it holds me back, and how routinely I hurt myself in situations where others blaze ahead. Because of that self-consciousness, though, I am often the first person to make fun of myself when I trip or otherwise land on my own butt. I tease myself before anyone else can, consistently reinforcing to myself and those around me that I'm not capable of anything else.

I received the message from a young age that I am a klutz, and I have clung to that message and allowed it to define me over the years. Would I still be clumsy if I hadn't continually been teased about my two left feet? Maybe. Probably. But it's also possible I would have been more willing to try new things and take risks I otherwise haven't, if I hadn't been so convinced that my clumsiness would hold me back.

So why would I put that on my daughter? Before she's even 3 years old? Why would I start teasing her, rather than encouraging her to test her own limits?

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This same friend has given me the same scold on more than one occasion now. I'm human, and I forget. Just like I know some of you will forget the rules above from time to time. It's not that I'm expecting perfection, because I'm not. I'm not perfect, and I am sure my sarcastic nature will evolve into comments I will wish I could take back in the future. So I'm not saying you have to be perfect with your words in order to be around my daughter. I'm simply imploring you to be mindful.

Because she's always watching. She's always listening. And the words you, and I, use around her? They matter.

Image via Leah Campbell

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