Raising Confident Girls By Watching What We Say

The words we use can impact girls’ confidence, ability to think and reason, and goals for their futures. Here are the important phrases to avoid.

confident girls

We often speak without thinking. Who hasn’t complimented a little girl for being pretty, or added “man” to the ends of professional titles (e.g., “mailman,” “policeman”)? It’s common vernacular. Yet, research shows, this type of speech can be incredibly harmful to girls.

Excluding Females From Our Speech

Without realizing it, we often speak in ways that trivialize or exclude a certain gender – most often females. This type of speech is called sexist language by researchers, and it can be much more subtle than we may think. For instance, the classic phrase “a giant leap for mankind” is sexist, psychologists Douglas and Sutton note, as are those professional “man-centric” titles we throw around, like “Congressman.” We also tend to use “he” instead of “she” when speaking about generic individuals, studies show.

Using more inclusive language – such as, switching from “businessman” to “business person” and saying “they” instead of “he” – might seem inconsequential, but it’s not. Both boys and girls learn gender categories based mainly on observation, including observing how we talk. This begins around 18 months of age.

Through ongoing exposure to sexist speech, females internalize that various careers are off-limits to them, that they have lower status and are less competent than males, and that they are generally less accepted by society, researchers find.

The Danger of Compliments about Appearance

In addition to excluding women from our speech, we tend to act in a sexist fashion when complimenting. While we lean toward commending boys on their competence (“you’re a hard worker” or “you’re really strong”), we tend to focus on girls’ looks (“what a pretty dress” or “aren’t you beautiful?”).

A fascinating and disturbing series of studies indicate that these well-intended compliments have devastating consequences. First, these comments can lead to a preoccupation with appearance, which researchers call “trait self-objectification.” Women who are high in this preoccupation tend to focus on how they look from the outside, especially to men, and constantly ask questions about their appearance. Regardless of whether they feel good about how they look, women who are preoccupied with their looks have lower well-being than women who don’t focus on their appearance.

Secondly, being complimented on our appearance undermines our ability to think. In a number of experiments, women were either complimented on their looks (for instance, one study told study participants, “I can see from your picture that your look is very presentable, and looking good is an advantage in the employment market”), were complimented on their competence or characteristics (such as, “You sound like a nice person”) or were given no specific feedback. The participants then completed math and reasoning problems. The women who were complimented on their appearance scored far worse than women in the other groups.

Researchers believe that, when complimented on appearance, women’s cognitive resources shift from performing competently to looking good.

Even more concerning, the women who tended to be preoccupied with their looks scored worst on the cognitive tests. These women experienced a boost to their moods when complimented on their appearance, but couldn’t focus at all on analytical tests after the “kind” words.

Perhaps most alarming of all, one study found that we don’t even have to talk about appearance to damage women’s thinking skills. When females were asked to try on a swimsuit and then take a math test, they scored significantly worse than females who were asked to try on a sweater before taking the test.

While these studies were conducted with adults, tweens and teens have an even stronger self-focus due to their stage of cognitive development. It’s likely, then, that compliments about looks may impair their academic performance even more than in the studies with adults. This may create a self-defeating cycle in which girls lose confidence in their cognitive skills and lean harder on their appearance in order to compensate. Due to this increased focus on appearance, they may then be even more likely to perform poorly in school whenever they are complimented about what they’re wearing or how they’ve styled their hair.

What We Can Do As Parents

All in all, talking in exclusionary, appearance-focused ways to our girls can undermine their confidence, their sense of possibilities, and their ability to reason and complete cognitive tasks. As parents, then, we must become more mindful about our speech in a multi-step process:

  1. First, we can start by simply noticing how often we use “man”-based language and/or compliment our daughters on their appearance. The words likely will slip out before we realize they’re coming, but recognition is a key first step. We can enlist our spouse or another relative to help us notice when it’s happening – and we can do the same for that person. Note that we shouldn’t call each out other in front of the kids, but should make a point of noting the slip soon after it occurs.
  2. Once awareness has been built, we can slow down while speaking and try to screen our thoughts before we say them. This will be a difficult and imperfect process at first, and it may feel highly frustrating. If we keep in mind the benefits to making the change, though, we’ll find the motivation to persevere.
  3. With time, the effortful shifting of our speech will become more automatic. We’ll eventually be able to speak without thinking again – but this time in a way that encourages a positive self-image and academic strength in our girls.