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The Language of Raising a Daughter, by Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

The challenge of being a feminist mother is that once you see something, you can’t un-see it. And once you understand how problematic something is, you can’t refuse to act on it. So there’s no opting out because something seems petty or small, because you know that small things are symptomatic of a bigger problem.

Take the other day. I gave my daughter, who is coming up to two, a big cuddle and told her I love her. “I know,” she said, and I laughed. “I’m so beautiful,” she added, and I froze.

Of course, she is beautiful. But I’ve never made much of a point of telling her. One of the first things she learned to describe herself as was “clever” – I made sure of that. I didn’t use the words “pretty”, “beautiful” or “cute” excessively; barely at all, in fact, and usually more likely about the cat than her, to be honest. That was a deliberate attempt to help her focus, from the very start, on something other than her appearance to be proud of. I was even more horrified at the idea that she might end up believing I only love her because she’s beautiful, or love her more for that than for just being herself. I ended up working on creating a new conversation between us around the love we feel for each other that had nothing to do with loving conditionally or being a certain way. Now we simply talk about how we love each other “lots and lots”.

Of course, the language that bothers me is of course the vocabulary of my hang-ups. My childhood weight issues are not her problem, but my lifelong food issues could be if I don’t make a conscious effort to model a better attitude to eating than I had. All her caregivers were briefed: she eats when she’s hungry, she stops when she wants. And she’s grown perfectly well and been nice and healthy all along. But the other day I overheard her tell her dad, as he lifted her, that she was “very heavy”. He quickly responded that she was simply growing up and getting stronger, and it was nice to have yet another bit of confirmation that I’m not the only feminist parent in this household who worries about these things.

There’s nothing wrong with “heavy” as a description – just like there’s nothing wrong with “fat” as a word. But when someone hauls you up and makes a big fuss of your heaviness, as must have happened at some point for her to comment on it, that is surely – in the long term – contributing to the kind of damaging talk that ends up in taking a pejorative swipe at someone’s weight, and obsessing over your own.

We avoid swearing in front of children, or talking about adult subjects, in case they repeat things they’re not ready to understand. And yet those words, while inappropriate, won’t hurt their self-esteem and confidence as they grow older. The words we think of as appropriate, the words of self-disgust and self-hatred we freely use before them… it’s alarming when you stop to think about it, and now that I have I can’t seem to stop. Sometimes I think I’d love to, just to have the bliss of ignorance again, and then I feel guilty (but the guilt that comes with motherhood is a story for another day).

Inevitably, I wonder if I’m missing the bigger picture here or possibly even adding to the potential pitfalls by focussing more on the issues than I have to. But I always come back to the idea that the language of raising a daughter has to change, if the language of being a woman is going to. If we’re going to get rid of the gender-bashing insults, the dreadful, thoughtless, misogynist phrases, the sexist tone of language among adults, we surely have to start by getting kids to focus on better ways to think of themselves, and that begins with how they talk about themselves and how we talk about them.

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About Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

I'm a blogger, social media manager, mum, film fan, feminist and food freak in any order you like. I will shoehorn Disney into any conversation. Follow me @mokuska.

9 comments on “The Language of Raising a Daughter, by Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

  1. M @ We Sat Down
    June 12, 2012

    Yes, and I’d add that the language used with boys should change too. As well as adjectives, how about the way we continually reinforce gender as a category that defines our identity: good boy, clever girl etc? Our obsessions with gender start when the baby is still a foetus. But for what reason? So that we buy blue instead of pink? So that we choose a gender appropriate name? Or for other more sinister reasons? As little people, we’re primed for gender difference before we’ve even taken a breath.

    • alexandragoldstein
      June 16, 2012

      Completely agree – and I fall into the traps over and over again and kick myself repeatedly! Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Anne-Marie
    June 12, 2012

    Alex, this is such a thought provoking post. I know I must have made “ooh, aren’t you getting heavy!” comments when picking up my nieces and god-daughter when they were babies/toddlers (but also my friend’s son too) – it’s scary how such language is automatic sometimes.

    • alexandragoldstein
      June 16, 2012

      I don’t think it ever occurred to me until it was MY kid – isn’t that ridiculous? I know I use thoughtless language ALL the time (it’s inevitable), but I’m trying to train myself to pay attention to it. Thank you!

  3. Sarah
    June 12, 2012

    Excellent article, Alexandra. I am hyper-aware of language, too, and try not to reinforce gender stereotypes with either my son or my daughter. I do tell my daughter she is beautiful, though (and clever and strong and kind and imaginative and brilliant), mainly because I think she is and I’m unable to stop myself!

    • alexandragoldstein
      June 16, 2012

      I know I’ve done it, and sometimes it feels right to tell her – I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with saying it (and I certainly think she’s gorgeous), but I have this fear of overdoing it! It’s lovely to know there’s more and more of us out there thinking about these things. Thank you so much for your comment. 🙂

  4. MallyMon
    June 12, 2012

    Excellent! As the single (since she was 9) mother of one daughter I have to admit I said and did all the wrong things as she was growing up. But – she has grown up to be a strong-minded, independent-thinking, kind and caring feminist in spite of (because of?) it all. The problem isn’t really parents though, it’s often the other people our children mix with (grandparents, other relatives, teachers, other kids) who make silly observations and comments that stay with them for years. That is really difficult to police. As parents, it’s not so much the language we use – I think it’s important to try to teach our children, boys and girls, to question what others say, rather than just accept other people’s comments as the truth. Let’s face it, some people do talk a load of rubbish!

    • alexandragoldstein
      June 16, 2012

      I think you make an excellent point here (and yes, you did do a super job!) – I really worry that my own influence is already being minimised in the vast tide of nonsense that’s out there. I suppose I want to set a pattern for her to follow in spite of all my flaws, and I hope she’ll eventually have that to come back to. I do agree that working on critical thinking and media literacy is going to be absolutely key – to disregard what peers / family / the tv say, you need to start with knowing why it’s rubbish!

      Thank you!

  5. Inji
    June 17, 2012

    I tell both my kids they are beautiful about 20 times a day. I am sure that my father telling me that I was beautiful raised my self esteem out of all proportion to my looks and talents.

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