As a parent, you know that what you say in front of your kids matters. As a mother, you know that your daughter listens especially closely to whatever you say—even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with you or go along with every request you make of her.
The point is, the way moms talk to and in front of their daughters does have lasting implications, so it’s important to choose your words carefully and banish certain turns of phrase from your vocabulary. Here’s what to avoid saying when trying to raise a confident, compassionate, and well-adjusted daughter. For more on raising a daughter, check out the 30 Ways to Make Your Daughter a Better Leader.
Anything negative about your weight.
Let’s just get this one out of the way. “If your daughter sees you stepping on the scale every day and hears you talk about being ‘fat,’ she may develop an unhealthy body image,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist. “Be acutely self-aware, as everything you say and do is the template model for how your children will absorb messages about themselves.”
Rather than focusing on weight, it’s better to emphasize a healthy lifestyle and how rewarding it can be. “Instead of complaining, ‘I need more exercise,’ say, ‘It’s gorgeous outside, I’m going for a walk,’ which may inspire her to join you!” And for some really great health advice, check out these 20 Healthy Living Rules You Should Live By.
Anything about her weight.
“Never tell your daughter she looks fat or needs to lose weight—ever,” says Lisa Sugarman, opinion columnist, author, and parenting expert. “Because the only thing that’s going to do is damage her self-image and make her more self-conscious and fixated on her weight than she probably already is.”
After all, society already gives girls plenty of negative messaging about body ideals; there’s no need for you to pile it on. For more ways to stay positive, check out the 15 Body Positive Affirmations That Actually Work.
“Here, just take my credit card.”
It might be easiest to hand your daughter your credit card when she needs money for clothes, a school trip, or an ice cream, but this reinforces the idea that money is an intangible, unlimited resource. Work with your daughter to set a budget for weekly treats or a monthly allowance so that she begins to understand that money doesn’t grow on trees, and that financial planning is a must. For more on budgeting, check out The 10 Best Budgeting Apps to Boost Your Savings.
“Sweetie, why aren’t you smiling?”
You probably don’t like it when people tell you to smile, so don’t do it to your daughter. Telling her that she must smile and be pleasant all the time in order to be acceptable hampers her ability to learn to feel comfortable with being assertive, with owning her anger, with asserting her natural leadership, explains Patricia O’Gorman, Ph.D., psychologist and author of The Girly Thoughts 10-Day Detox.
“She is being such a witch.”
It’s not a good idea to use the b-word in front of your daughter in any context, but especially in reference to a friend. “Moms shouldn’t negatively comment on a disagreement they have had with a close friend in front of their daughters,” says Eirene Heidelberger, founder of GITMom. “You are a role model for your daughter on how to be a good friend. If a child only hears negative comments, she may be negative and critical of her own girlfriends.” And for more on parenting, know that This Dad’s Letter to His Son’s Teacher Is Too Funny for Words.
“Stop taking so many selfies.”
“Don’t obsess over her selfie obsession, but have an honest talk,” advises Arna van Goch, a social media expert for parents. “Lots of girls today will be obsessed with taking the perfect selfie. Do not get angry with them and yell at them! This will only make them want to keep doing it. By talking to them and setting a great example, you will be better placed to teach them that looks aren’t everything.” Oh, and speaking of selfies: Here’s Why This Woman’s Mind-Bending Selfie Is Going Viral.
“Sorry” When You Haven’t Actually Done Anything Wrong
“Women have a tendency to apologize for things that are not their fault,” notes Heather Monahan, founder of #BossInHeels and author of Confidence Creator. “When someone bumps into them, many women will say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Getting rid of the apologies and instead saying ‘excuse me’ is a great example to set for younger girls. To go a step further, instead of apologizing or saying ‘excuse me,’ you can thank someone. Thanking a group for their patience when you arrive late to a meeting, for example, is a powerful way to overcome a potentially awkward situation.”
“She’s our little tomboy.”
Or any other descriptive label that could stick with them. “It doesn’t matter what the label is but when Mom says it in front of other moms or front of the daughter’s peers, it hurts,” says Julia Simens, a parenting expert and author. “This also sets up the daughter to already be classified and not her real self.” Instead of putting your daughter in a box based on how you see her, let her figure out her own label-free identity.
“You look so beautiful.”
“This seems positive, but it can make her feel that her physical appearance of more value than it needs to be,” says Jasmin Terrany, a life therapist. “Focus on your daughter’s inner qualities, her efforts, and her achievements over her appearance. Instead of saying, ‘You look so beautiful,’ say: ‘You look so happy, you are glowing.’” And for more things you shouldn’t say, here are the 40 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kid.
“You’re wearing that?”
“To a large degree, we’re stuck letting daughters experiment with fashion as they figure out what does and doesn’t work,” says Varda Meyers Epstein, parenting expert at Kars4Kids. “In order to get them there, we have to let them make mistakes. It’s a microcosm for life in general.”
Fighting words between your partner.
In a heated moment, it can be easy to forget that your daughter is present, but it’s best to save any argumentative exchanges for behind closed doors. Research indicates that even simple everyday parental conflict does lasting damage to children, and may even reduce their own ability trust others and read others’ emotions.
“Don’t be sad!”
It’s important for girls—and all children, for that matter—to learn that it’s okay to have feelings. What might not seem like a big deal to you could be earth-shattering for her, and daughters often look to their mothers for validation. Instead of minimizing whatever she is going through (no matter how insignificant it may seem in the moment) be there for her and see if you can come up with a solution to help her feel better together.
“I’m such a failure.”
Everyone encounters challenges, but kids absorb the way you deal with them. “When we put ourselves down in front of our children, they pick up on the cues,” Monahan says. “Responding to failures as opportunities to learn and grow instead of moments to hold ourselves back results in children that will take more risks and become resilient.”
Nope. Not every little girl wants to be a princess, and what’s more, research indicates that “princess culture” may actually be harmful to young girls, since it places an emphasis on beauty as a young woman’s most important asset. While it might be tempting to let her know how cherished she is with this seemingly-cute turn of phrase, it’s best to leave the “princess” talk to your daughter herself. And for some coverage of the lighter side of parenting, don’t miss the 20 Funniest Tweets About Being a Mom.
“Wow, the Jones’ new car is seriously fancy.”
“Moms shouldn’t make remarks in front of their daughters about someone with more money or someone who has recently bought a splashy new item,” says Heidelberger. “It may provoke jealousy and feelings of inadequacy.”
“It would be so nice if you could take some dance classes like your sister.”
“You should never compare your daughter to her siblings, her friends, or other kids you know,” Sugarman says. “Because as soon as you start scrutinizing her against other people around her, she’s going to start feeling insecure. And once that happens, she’s going to start feeling inferior to all those people, and that insecurity is only going to grow.”
“Oh, it was nothing.”
Never minimize your achievements in front of your daughter, unless you want her to do the same when she grows up. “This is learned by watching what their mothers say and do—hearing and seeing their mother not ‘act so smart’ by downplaying her abilities, her intellect, giving credit for achievements to her husband, and being almost allergic to taking credit for their accomplishments,” says O’Gorman.
You may feel like you don’t want to be immodest, but this can actually teach her that she should never outshine others.
“I hope you have a daughter just like you.”
This is a nice thing to say when things are going well between you and your daughter, but often, it’s said as a curse during an argument or difficult moment. “Statements such as these make daughters feel unappreciated and unwanted,” Epstein says. “Do you really want your daughter to think you consider her a curse?”
“That’s not very ladylike.”
Or worse: “Be a lady.” Studies show that mothers are most responsible for transferring sexist ideals to their children. While you might not consider yourself sexist, emphasizing typical gender roles in this way can have lasting effects on your daughter. If you don’t want her to do something, tell her, don’t use her sex as the reason she shouldn’t be doing it.
“I’m getting so old.”
Many women worry about aging, but doing so in front of your daughter teaches her to be afraid of changes that are, well, totally natural.
Any direction that includes “should” or “shouldn’t.”
“No one likes being told what to do—especially teenagers and toddlers,” Terrany points out.
“Sometimes people bark orders at their kids and are surprised when the kids don’t do as they say. You don’t need to prove that you are in charge; this just creates a power struggle. Instead, treat your children like they are on the same team, if you think they could do something better, use softer language. When you tell someone not to do something, it doesn’t mean they won’t do it, it just means they won’t tell you about it.”
Generalizations about groups of people.
Never tell your daughter that all ___ people are like ____. Let’s assume you don’t genuinely believe that all people in a group are actually the same (because, duh, they’re not), but you’re saying something like this for another reason. While you may feel that a generalization about a particular group of people—whether it’s a race, religion, nationality, or anything else—is funny, perhaps, your daughter will most likely take you at your word. Worse, she may repeat what you’ve said to others.
“Men are the worst!”
Just as fighting in front of your daughter is a no-no, making disparaging remarks about men in general or your male romantic partner in particular is also off-limits. While whatever you are commenting on may ring true via your own experiences with men, there’s no reason to assume it will be the same for her. By telling her that all men act a certain way, you could unwittingly send her into future relationships with preconceived notions about what to expect that don’t necessarily line up with reality.
“You’re not looking so great lately. What’s going on?”
“If you are concerned about her outward appearance, focus more on asking questions about how she is doing,” Terrany recommends. “Try to get a sense for why she may not be taking care of herself and how she is feeling rather than suggesting that she eat less or change her shirt.”
“Good job. Next time, let’s go for an A”
We get it. Grades are important. But research shows that while having high hopes for your kids’ grades can help them do better, having unrealistic expectations can make them do worse. In other words, if your daughter usually comes home with As in math and she suddenly brings home a C, have a conversation about what happened. But if she gets a B after previously bringing home Cs, don’t keep pushing for that A. Instead, celebrate her success.
“You can’t do that.”
“Never, ever tell your daughter she can’t,” Sugarman says. “That will shut her down before she ever gets out of the gate. And she’s just going to internalize the ‘I can’t’ attitude and never bother trying. Because sending her the message that she’s not smart enough or fast enough or capable enough to go after what she wants will ensure that she never even tries in the first place.”
“____ is for boys.”
Don’t say this in response to your daughter wanting to try something new. We all believe girls can be anything they want when they grow up, right? Well, this kind of language goes against that ideal.
“You are perfect.”
Your daughter may be perfect to you, but statements like this can end up hurting more than helping. Studies show that lavishing praise can actually make them more afraid of making mistakes and less likely to take a chance on learning something new. Instead, it’s better to give specific, realistic praise when your daughter does something well.
“I just don’t think he’s good enough for you.”
This is a common refrain that starts the moment girls start dating and continues well into adult life. The truth is, your daughter can judge for herself who is “good enough” and who isn’t, and she’ll probably continue to date them regardless of whether or not you approve of her current chosen partner. Rather than being negative about her love interests, let her know you’ll always be there for her to talk about her love life if and when she needs it.
“Don’t get too dirty, okay?”
If you’re sending your daughter outside to play, it can be a common instinct to warn her against messing up her clothes. But think about it this way: Would you say the same thing to a boy? Probably not. Plus, with the magic of washing machines, it’s really not that hard to wash out mud and grass stains. For more on mother and daughter relationships, check out 30 Things Only Moms With Daughters Know.
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