I call babies cute. Most of the time it is because they are actually quite cute, and occasionally because it is the polite thing to say.
Calling babies cute is second-nature for most of us. It is what the spit-up splattered parents want to hear, and in those pre-personality early months there is really nothing else to comment on but the little one’s appearance.
Once kids get a little older though, many of us find ourselves commenting on boy’s personalities or intelligence, while still making sure to tell little girls how cute — specifically pretty — they are. For awhile now we have been discussing how girls internalize these messages, but now we are starting to realize how much parents do too.
As Lisa Bloom wrote a few years ago on the Huffington Post, the standard icebreaker in our culture for talking to little girls is commenting on how they look. The issue here is that “teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.”
And the (female) kids are not alright. Bloom points out that close to half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat, 15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now regularly wear make-up, and a high number of bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart.
Australian feminist writer Kasey Edwards wrote a great column this past winter expressing her frustration with how much attention Santa paid to her daughter Violet’s outfit and good looks. She noted that when a boy sat down on his lap he asked him what he thought about reindeer. Both Bloom and Edwards suggest we can break this habit by reminding ourselves to ask girls about their favorite books, movies or what they think of their surroundings. I don’t think either of them believes we should never mention how lovely girls look, because they are often so lovely, but just that we need to do it way less and shouldn’t lead with it. This would help not just children, but their parents too.
In the Sunday New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote about his research looking at the Google search patterns of parents.
Even with girls 11% percent more likely to be in a gifted program, parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?”
Don’t worry little girls, your parents haven’t forgotten you on Google. While parents are more likely to ask about sons on all matters relating to intelligence — even its absence — they are two times as likely to ask whether you young ladies are overweight. Oh, did I mention that boys are actually more likely to be overweight? They are also more likely to ask the search engine whether you are beautiful or ugly. I guess this must make Google the “beholder.”
Stephens-Davidowitz didn’t say whether moms or dads are behind these searches. It would be interesting to see whether insecurities about one’s kids plague moms more than dads, or vice versa. If I was a betting woman I would go with moms, especially with the “is my daughter fat?” stuff.
Either way, this study shows us that parents seem to be just as sensitive to you telling little Eva that she has lovely eyes as little Eva herself. Also, to not ignore the unique pressures put on boys, every time you tell little Finn how great it is that he knows everything about dinosaurs, his parents start worrying that he doesn’t know actually know everything. Let this be a good reminder to all of us to make be a little more aware of what we say kids, for the good of our kids, and their parents’ too.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.