Yes, our new daughter is cute and beautiful, and I am asking you to go beyond those compliments because she is so much more. As I begin this journey of fatherhood, I would like to offer some ways you can help us raise a confident woman. With this said, I realize I have much growth ahead of me as a father and human being. I offer this to begin a conversation to spark that growth.
We instinctively compliment children. That’s OK, but compliments are double edged swords. Humans become addicted to these compliments which eventually influence our character. I fear that hearing a constant refrain of “beautiful” will cause our daughter to fixate on her appearance. I worry that “ladylike” will make her assume she needs to fill the traditional roles of a woman to be accepted. I think that “princess” will confine her imagination to gowns and discourage her from building Lego cities and helping me change our car oil. On the other hand, compliments such as courageous can become reality when she needs to dig deep in tough situations. I am thinking long and hard about how to share my appreciation for our daughter in an empowering way. I am going to need a lot of help along the way!
First, what to avoid.
Let’s start with cute. As a test, imagine people describing you that way. “Oh look at Jim, he is soooo cute.” Demeaning right? Just let that one go.
Next up is pretty, beautiful, and other variations. This is going to be hard, because she is stinking gorgeous. However, that’s only a tiny part of what makes her an amazing human. If we fixate on that tiny part, so will she. If you simply must say something, and I don’t blame you because I am always watching her beauty in wonder, put a little more thought into it. Notice her smile or the buoyant way she runs around playing and tell her you appreciate those things. Bottom line, use superficial praise sparingly and provide a compliment with substance concurrently.
Then there’s good girl. Sounds like I am talking to my dog Nali, right? Well, probably because I am. I want my daughter to be a virtuous girl, if that’s what you mean — a woman of strong character, trustworthy, fierce, courageous — but you probably mean “oh isn’t it nice that she is quiet and listens to her parents.” I hope she will listen to us out of respect. At the same time, I want her to question authority, think critically about everything around her, and, when she has good cause to rage against the world, not be a good girl.
Finally, let’s get away from princess. Our dog’s nickname is Princess Prancey Paws, because she hates getting dirty and prances around mud puddles. Princess largely boils good girl, pretty, cute, pink and pinker into a lacy platitude. Our daughter isn’t a princess. The only time you can call her this is if she is pretending she is a princess. Help me out, though, and instead of telling her you like her tiara, ask her how she manages to rule her people with such wisdom, grace and justice.
So how can you compliment our daughter? Here are some ground rules for her and, really, everyone else in your life.
Put some effort into it. Take a minute to really notice what you appreciate and then articulate that. Maybe even include how what you appreciate affects you. For example, at work instead of “nice job,” try “nice work on that report, it was very well researched and helped me articulate our situation to the C-Suite.” Your co-worker will probably give you detailed reports from then on. She will take pride in that aspect of her work!
In the same way that leaders can reinforce growth in their people through specific positive feedback, help us raise our young woman. Instead of reflexively saying she is cute or beautiful, try to notice the sparkle of curiosity in her eyes or the tenacity in the way she takes on a challenge. Compliment those things!
Focus on what matters. For Aristotle it was virtue-based ethics. He imagined virtue as a constant state of striving for good character. In other words, your virtue and character are an active condition. It isn’t a yes or no, rather character means moving toward or away. (1)
If you notice and compliment something about my daughter’s virtue, you probably can’t go wrong. Here is a hint: Her physical beauty has nothing to do with her character. If she is graceful and poised because she spends long hours practicing martial arts, that might hint at parts of her character to compliment such as discipline, focus, or courage. Think about what is behind her beauty and help us reinforce those virtuous qualities.
Her intelligence isn’t part of her character either, so please avoid calling her smart. IQ is fixed. Calling her smart will make her afraid of looking dumb when she inevitably reaches her IQ limit. (2) Our daughter’s character won’t be defined by how smart she is, but rather by how she thinks. I hope she is wicked smart, and even more, I hope that she has the persistence to think through complex problems without giving up, the creativity to find new solutions when all is lost, the courage to speak up when she sees a different way. Compliment these things, because unlike IQ, they are unlimited!
Here is a quick list from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to get you started on virtues to notice and compliment: Courage, Temperance, Generosity, Greatness of Soul (confidence in a true estimate of your worth), Gentleness, Truthfulness, Justice, Wisdom, Practical Judgement, Thoughtfulness, A True Friend. (1)
Use encouragement instead of praise.
Carrol Dweck beautifully outlines the perils of a fixed mindset and the possibilities of a growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (2) Reading her book initially sparked my concern about how to compliment our daughter. When you always tell a child that she is smart or talented, etc., the child will begin incorporating that into her identity. After a while she will be afraid to do anything that could call that praise into question — thus eliminating opportunity for growth.
By encouraging instead of praising, you can sidestep this danger. When my daughter brings home a report card full of A’s, I hope to encourage her hard work, her ability to think deeply and focus on learning, her deeper understanding, and the creative ways she makes meaning of complex subjects. Later, when she calls home thinking about dropping a class in college because she can’t get an A, I will remind her of these character qualities that will help her stick with it. Instead of being devastated that she isn’t “smart” enough, I hope she will hang up the phone and think, “that’s right, I just need to work harder and enjoy what I am learning.”
Another danger of praise is that it breeds dependence. Studies found that college students who need approval from others have higher depression and lower performance in school than those who rely on internal fortitude. (3) As much as I want to shower our daughter with praise, instead I intend to challenge and encourage her to build her own character.
Finally, when in doubt, just ask!
Feel free to ask our daughter what she is proud of today. Ask what she has been working on or what challenges she has been overcoming. Ask why she looks particularly joyful. Ask what is most special about her. Asking shows you care, makes her think about and internalize her values and strengths, and means you are rising above trite compliments like pretty and cute!
A special thank you to @harvestlife_mt for insightful conversations about raising a strong young woman and some amazing photography to capture the sense of adventure we hope to instill in our daughter. Check out her thoughts and photos at https://harvestlifeblog.wordpress.com/about/.
Thank you to all of the mothers and women who have shared their perspective with me thus far. I can only glimpse this world that has become increasingly important to me as I imagine our daughter’s future.
1. Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics.
2. Dweck, Carrol. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success.
3. Kay, Katty & Shipman, Claire. The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know.