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Walking The Tightrope

A friend of mine told me that her daughter recently walked out of a bathroom and remarked casually, “Every time I look in the mirror I’m surprised that I’m pretty.”

Nonplussed, my friend pressed the issue and learned that her daughter considers herself unattractive – not because of anything that anyone has said, it’s simply how she sees herself.

Now, my friend and her husband are excellent parents and raise all their children thoughtfully and deliberately, and made the choice a long time ago that they would not dwell on appearances when speaking with their children, especially their daughters. So a compliment from them might sound something like this: “Hey, your outfit looks very pulled together today! I can see that you spent a long time working on it.”

Lest you think this is some sort of maneuvering around the truth, let me tell you that the child in question is quite pretty and the first time I met her I told her mom she should model. But my friend is following the recommendation of the book Nurture Shock – a book I think should be required reading for every parent – to compliment the effort, not the result. Exhaustive studies have shown that children complimented for content – “You are so smart! You are so pretty! You finished that test really fast – you must be a genius!” – are actually LESS likely to try hard, for fear of failure. Students with such praise would rather keep the accolades they’ve got than risk failing next time and be seen as less than before. On the other hand, if the effort is praised – “You got all the words right on your spelling test; you must have studied really hard!” or “The painting is lovely – I can see how much time you took on it!” then students are exponentially more likely to try increasingly difficult things, risking failure much more easily.

This is a technique we’ve applied to our own house, and have seen measurable results, so I know it works, at least for us. And it’s worked for my friend – all her children are responding similarly to the way Maddie and Cora have responded to me.

But perhaps it’s more complicated than we think. Perhaps as we praise the effort, what’s left unspoken becomes even louder: “Look at how much time you’ve spent on your outfit” could, to a sensitive and intuitive child, sound a lot like, “You’re rather unattractive but I’ll search for something nice to say to you so you don’t feel bad.”

Do you see it? Because I totally do. I was a great one as a child for reading between the lines, always negatively and always assuming it was negative about myself. Probably the way I’m wired, but there you go.

So how do you walk that tightrope? How do you raise your children up to be confident but not arrogant, secure but not egotistical? What can you say to make a little girl believe in her beauty – both inward and outward – without becoming obsessed with looks? How do you encourage your son in sports and still avoid being consumed with winning?

Over on Momastery a couple weeks ago Glennon talked about bragging, and why she and her husband made the deliberate decision not to brag about their kids. Ever. To anyone. They want their kids to know that they are loved unconditionally, and nothing they do will ever make them more or less loved. So there’s no “Hey, Johnny did the cutest thing the other day” to a fellow mom at a play date, or “My daughter got straight A’s this semester! Holla!” while standing around at church. They want their kids to know grace-based love, and not works-based love. And I can’t argue with that.

But Glennon’s sister did, and pointed out to Glennon that some of Sister’s favorite memories from childhood are overhearing her mom brag about herself to a parent – it made her feel special, and her deeds recognized. Hearing a parent tell another parent something extraordinary that you did is certainly a confidence boost, a treasure to carry around in your heart when times get lean.

So which answer is right?

I honestly don’t know.

I do know that when I see Maddie in a fancy dress with her hair all shiny, I make an effort to say, “You are beautiful!” rather than “You LOOK beautiful!” A small distinction, perhaps, but an important one to me. I tell my daughters they are pretty, but keep it as one in a long catalog of the things I love about them, and remind them that they are beautiful inside and out. We keep looks-based conversations out of our house as much as possible, and to my girls, “diet” is the way you eat to stay healthy, not something you do for weight loss.

As for my friend, she gave her daughter a pretty perfect follow-up talk. She expressed her honest surprise that her daughter could ever consider herself unattractive, and went on to explain that their household was not one that dwelt on outer beauty. She also told her daughter that the girl had so many amazing qualities that perhaps the physical beauty didn’t get discussed thoroughly, but it didn’t make it any less real. I think her daughter was content with the answer.

But it points out the tightrope on which we all walk. It’s a balancing act, every day.


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