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.
- Girls get less criticism overall, but that they do get is about lack of ability.
- Overall, girls get more positive feedback, and boys get more negative feedback. This reinforces a fixed mindset (the idea that intelligence is fixed, and there is little you can do to change it) in girls and a growth mindset (the idea that intelligence can grow, like a muscle) in boys.
- Girls get more negative feedback about their intellectual work, and boys get more negative feedback about nonintellectual behaviors. This means girls are more likely to perceive negative feedback as relevant to their ability, and boys attribute it to more external causes.
- Teachers are less likely to attribute girls' failure to lack of motivation than boys'. Again, this reinforces a fixed mindset in girls, and a growth mindset in boys.
Fennema and Peterson (1985); Brophy (1985); Fagot (1981)
- Teachers exert more control over girls than boys in elementary school, leading girls to have less confidence in their abilities than boys.
- Teachers encourage less independent thinking in girls; interact less and at lower cognitive levels with high-achieving girls than high-achieving boys; and are more likely to impose rules over girls than boys.
- This often leads girls to see selves as incompetent.
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.
- Parents are more likely to exert control over daughters than sons.
- There is a greater pressure on girls to be nurturant, obedient and socially responsible than there is on boys.
- Parents respond more quickly to girls' than boys' mistakes.
- Parents are more likely to interrupt their daughters than their sons.
- Parents are more likely to intrude upon and direct daughter's activities.
- Parents maintain closer track of girls than boys.
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?
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:
- Don't forget to ask a question you've never asked before today! (I'll ask you what it was at dinner.)
- Don't forget to identify one need or problem in your school/community today... and think of three ways you could solve it!
- Try to think of a problem no one's ever solved before. Come up with a hypothesis for why the problem hasn't been solved -- and what scientists/politicians/teachers/doctors could do to solve it. (Don't forget: the most important possible vocabulary word for a child in the digital age is "hypothesis.")
- Tell me one thing you're grateful for today.
- Tell me one thing you love about yourself today.
- Spend five minutes doing something kind for someone in your community today.
- Spend five minutes talking to your teacher after your favorite class today. Think of three ways what you learned in school could apply to real life.
Worst case, I would say something like:
- You can spend five minutes brushing your hair, or five minutes reviewing Spanish flashcards.
- You can spend five minutes brushing your hair, or five minutes writing a postcard to grandma.
- You can spend five minutes brushing your hair, or five minutes doing pushups/chinups/lunges/jumping on the trampoline/walking the dog/tumbling/shooting free throws/etc.
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.