It doesn't matter if you say her brains matter more than her looks if your actions tell her otherwise.
Yesterday on Quora, someone asked, "Should I stop bugging my 11-year-old daughter to brush her hair every day?"
Before clicking on the question to read the answers, I assumed that everyone would answer, "Yes! Who cares if she brushes her hair?" But, actually, most people answered, "No. If she refuses to brush her hair, make her cut it."
So I'm obviously not a parent. But I am a psychologist. And let me tell you about some depressing psychology studies I learned about at Stanford.
Dweck and Bush (1976); Dweck, Davidson, Nelson and Enna (1978)
There are clear gender differences in how students receive feedback from their teachers. For example, 94% of positive feedback boys receive is about intellectual quality of work. Only 79% of total positive feedback for girls is about the content or intellectual quality of their work. They're much more likely than boys to be praised for "neatness" of their work.
Meanwhile, 54% of criticism boys received on their work was about content -- while 89% of girls' criticisms were.
Meaning girls are more likely to be praised for neatness, and more likely to be criticized on the content, ideas and intellectual quality of their work.
Fennema and Peterson (1985); Brophy (1985); Fagot (1981)
In addition to teachers, parents are also more likely to encourage independence in males (starting in infancy) than females. They're more likely to allow boys to explore and manipulate environment; permit boys to attempt modestly risky behaviors (e.g., using scissors, climbing on stool, etc.); allow boys to play away from home; and praise boys' independent behaviors.
But what's this got to do with your daughter brushing her hair? Plenty of things.
First of all, you're a parent. So presumably you want the best for your daughter. That means you want her to value herself for more than her beauty, right? You may have even told her something to the effect of, "You're more than a pretty face," or, "Beauty is skin deep." You may have even told her not to set "unrealistic" beauty standards for herself (though, as someone who has studied psychology, I would advise against this).
But here's the thing about raising kids: it doesn't matter what you tell them. It matters how you act. If you tell her the most important thing is her heart or her mind, but then the one thing you remind her to do every day is to brush her hair, you're reinforcing two negative messages:
1) For women, beauty matters. It matters so much I am going to "bug" you about it every day.
2) For women, neatness matters -- more than intellect. Just as teachers are more likely to praise girls for neatness than the intellectual quality of their work, so are you taking time each day to remind her to be neat -- instead of reminding her to try something she's never tried or ask a question she's never asked before.
If your daughter doesn't brush her hair every day, it means she's not hyper-focused on her beauty and what others think of her. Isn't this a good thing? Isn't this how you want her to be? Would you rather she freak out and not want to go to school because she's having a bad hair day, or be unable to concentrate in class because she's worried about the pimple on her chin?
Maybe someday she will start to care more about her appearance. Or maybe not. Either way -- that's fine! What's the harm in letting her feel carefree and independent for what little bit of her childhood she has left?
I never got into the whole "having pretty hair" thing, and I turned out just fine!
Second, these studies show that your daughter already automatically faces several educational and experiential disadvantages that her male peers do not. Consciously or unconsciously, authority figures (including you) are more likely to exert control over your daughter than her male peers. They are less likely to encourage her to develop her own unique identity or interests. They're less likely to encourage her (or give her the independence) to try new things. Which is bad -- autonomy and independent exploration are super important for children, and kids who don't spend enough time exploring on their own aremore likely to have anxiety issues in adulthood.
It's hard to fight an unconscious bias, since you don't always know they exist. But one thing you can do... is just let go of this one little thing. Does it really matter how pretty her hair looks on a day-to-day basis? Like, maybe before a piano recital or a funeral, you should bug her about looking tidy and brushing her hair. But why not give her this one bit of control?
Third, on a similar note: as your daughter enters her teenage and adult years, men will begin feeling more entitled to her body. In addition to giving her direct and explicit examples of ways to reinforce her personal boundaries (and constantly remind her that it is okay, and even really good, to be rude)... why not walk the walk? Use the hair thing as a way you can give her more control over her body, starting right now.
Fourth, if you're going to take the time and energy to bug her about something each day, and you don't want it to be something that's going to teach her that her appearance matters more than her intelligence, and you want to use this "bugging" as an opportunity to help her develop her cognitive skills, why don't you think a little more carefully about what matters? About how you can make your daughter kinder, happier or more intelligent?
If I had a daughter, here are some examples of what I would "bug" her about every day:
Worst case, I would say something like:
I would take big, strong muscles over pretty hair any day.
You know what's awesome about these questions, choices and routines?
They develop cognitive skills. They develop self-confidence. They develop mental health skills, like gratitude and self-affirmation. They develop curiosity, mindfulness and problem solving skills. They develop closeness, bonding and relationships with family and the community.
They're going to do your daughter a lot more good in the long-run than brushing her hair ever could. And isn't that what your daughter deserves?
To learn more, check out The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence; Reviving Ophelia - Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls; and How to Raise an Adult - Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.
Additionally, just in time for the holidays, check out The Eight Most Amazing, Educational Toys for Girls.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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