How (not) to talk to someone else’s daughter

Sepia photograph of girl in a polka-dotted dress look shyly down

By Marina Koestler Ruben

“Well, aren’t you a kitten,” our male friend said coyly.

I cringed. It was not a catcall, per se, but the baby equivalent. And directed at my one-year-old daughter.

Recently, inspired by the Trump news cycle and its detour into “locker-room talk,” I’ve been thinking about the way this friend—and other men, including strangers—tend to address little girls, including my young daughter, who is now five.

“Look at those eyes!”

“Boy, when she gets older, watch out!”

“She’s going to drive the boys crazy!”

“You’re going to have to beat the boys back with a stick!”

“Get the shotgun ready!”

It makes me uncomfortable when a grown man looks at my child and tells me that I will need a weapon to protect her when she’s older. Given the statistics, it also rings a little too close to reality.

Friends with children have told me they believe in taking these comments as intended: as innocent compliments. Sometimes it’s easy to do so, especially when the kind words are said directly to us, out of our daughter’s earshot, and without any innuendo. But, other times, I still struggle to say “thank you” to men who see someone young enough to have spent half of her life in diapers, and—whether consciously or not—start to assess her sexuality.

It’s different from the way adults talk to young boys. My two-year-old son has a friend at school who has recently been excited to help him take off his coat in the morning. A teacher called her my son’s “school wife.”

This teacher was simply making a cute observation. And yet, would she ever call my son someone’s “school husband”? I know he’s been called a “good friend” and a “helper.” He’s “well-behaved” and “polite.” As a boy, he tends to be judged as an independent entity, without the use of language that references his marriageable qualities. Girls, on the other hand, no matter how young, are quickly defined by the implication that their behavior and reactions exist to attract others.

But the little girl who giggles with delight is not “flirting.” When she laughs, she just thinks something is funny.

When my daughter smiles, she is not a “beauty queen.” She smiles because she is happy.

Oh, and if you like her long hair? Please don’t tell me she’s a “heartbreaker.” She’s a mammal. With hair.

Are these microaggressions? Macroaggressions? Not aggressions at all? Am I overreacting? Or is this gloomily indicative of what we value, in a country that still lauds spray-tanned, spray-haired pageant toddlers?

To be fair, biology and reproduction provide an obvious reason that we fascinate ourselves with gender roles, even early on. Elements of mating behavior arguably have their place in even our earliest interactions. Potential mates test limits, and we decide when and where to push back.

Where the line was once drawn, though, is not where it should be. I don’t want it to be okay to engage young girls using the kind of language that previous generations may have considered acceptable. It’s time for a new conversation about what’s acceptable to say to someone else’s daughter.

Spurred on by child development researchers, educators have increasingly worked to shift the tenor of compliments: don’t praise students for how “smart” they are; rather, compliment how they “worked so hard.” Applauding their efforts, rather than their abilities, instills students with motivation as opposed to making their academic outcome seem predestined.

Using the former lingo—my son is a “genius”; my daughter is “brilliant”—does not imply bad parenting, just as calling someone’s daughter “pretty” or “cupcake” comes with kind intent. That said, in the same way that we now commend students in the hopes of nurturing grit and resilience, we can also modify the words we use when complimenting children’s non-academic traits. We can be intentional about the qualities we want our daughters (and sons) to cherish.

“What a thoughtful child you have.”

“How creative!”

“She helped her brother so nicely.”

“He’s so gentle with his sister.”

Or, for children you have yet to get to know, you can say, simply, “Hi! It’s nice to meet you.” And if you are going to ask her a question, ask about her favorite activity or animal, not whether she has a “boyfriend.”

I’ll admit it. I, too, have looked at my daughter and said to my husband, in admiration, “Look at those eyes!” But my joy has nothing to do with her lashes and everything to do with the way she, in that moment, is still looking out at the world—full of trust and delight and the lovely, modern feeling that, for little girls, anything is possible.

Marina Koestler Ruben is a writer, editor, teacher, and the author of the book How to Tutor Your Own Child. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their two children.

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