Some thoughts about parenting and the words we use. Before beginning, I would like to acknowledge that I’m an extremist. As a performing artist and a social worker, I think of words as precision tools, with real power to hurt and heal. You are welcome to dismiss my point of view as over-the-top, unless you decide that it makes perfect sense. Here goes.
When my oldest daughter was a baby, I would take her grocery shopping with me. If her mom or her babysitter had dressed her, she might look ‘“like a girl,” in a dress, wearing frilly tights, etc. If I had put clothing on her, she was more likely to be in gray sweatpants and a baseball cap. It was an inadvertent social experiment, because people would respond differently to us depending on Emma’s attire. If she looked “like a girl”, I could scarcely get from the beginning of one aisle to the end without people stopping me to comment on how beautiful my baby was. The reason “like a girl” is in quotes, obviously, is because there is no one way that girls look. I’m talking about stereotypical appearance, involving lots of pink, lace, etc. On the other hand, if she was dressed “like a boy” I could walk all over that grocery store without interruption or comment. This experience underlined for me society’s validation of girls, which begins at infancy. Girls are validated, first, for their looks; boys are not, or at least, they are not validated primarily for their looks. I know I’m not saying anything here that everyone doesn’t know.
Early on, I decided not to play. Although I couldn’t control the rest of the world, I had power over my own words. I resolved never to validate my daughters for their looks. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, I never said a word about their appearance - never called them beautiful, pretty, lovely, cute - never, not once. It was only mildly challenging, because English has so many words from which to choose - amazing, miraculous, wonderful, adorable, precious, awesome, brilliant, talented, fine, cool, etc. Even into high school prom-time, I would say, “That dress looks great on you”, or “I like your hairstyle,” but never, “You’re beautiful.” Sometimes it felt like a kind of self-denial, but I thought it was important to be the one voice that validated them for their character, their accomplishments and their inherent and unique divine nature, but not for their looks.
When I talked about it with friends and colleagues, many of them told me I was crazy, that I was withholding from my daughters an important approval. Some of them were expressed sadness for my daughters, who had to grow up without hearing their father call them “pretty.”
Once, Emma and I went for a walk in the sculpture gardens behind the Pepsico headquarters. (Before you get to thinking that I was an awesome parent who did this sort of thing all the time, please know that we did this, exactly, once.) We crossed paths with a young man and woman who seemed to be on a date, and as we did, the woman was saying, “I mean, face it. If you’re a woman and you’re not pretty, there's just no hope.” After we were out of earshot, Emma, who was probably 10 years old, looked at me, aghast, and said, “No hope? As what? A doctor?”
If you ask Emma and Olivia how they feel about my choice of words while they were growing up, the (beautiful) young women who are my daughters will tell you that they never noticed, and never felt like anything was missing. They remember that I told them they were “cool” a lot. In their opinion, it was a good idea.