I am throwing down a challenge. In the next week, every time you see a child you don't know? Find a compliment that has nothing to do with what she's wearing or how he looks. Don't compliment curly hair, or sparkly shoes, or a cool shirt.
Why? Why am I taking away your opportunity for a quick and heart-warming conversation with the child in the grocery cart in front of yours? I hope I'm not.
Children and teens hear conflicting messages. Parents and teachers say "Love yourself the way you are!" Every magazine, commercial, fashion spread, billboard screams, "Be hot, and sexy, and everything will go your way!" WQED TV is tackling this struggle in the second episode of iQ: SmartParent "Girls Growing Up With Media."
I was honored to interview three amazing women, and a whole host of fascinating and savvy teens and their parents during our taping. M. Gigi Durham, PhD, is the author of the best-selling book The Lolita Effect: The Media's Sexualization of Girls and What We Can Do About It. Rebecca Gaynier is the founder of iTwixie.com, a moderated social media site strictly for girls, ages 8-14. Jennifer Stancil is the Executive Director of Educational Partnerships at WQED Multimedia, and has spent most of her career innovating how kids see the world around them and their potential within it.
These women made me think.
What's the problem?
Starting almost as soon as they leave the womb, kids are realizing that they will be judged by how they look. Hair, clothes, bodies, even very young children are used as models. Models give us something to aim for, right?
Ah, but these pictures our kids see? Are not worthwhile, are not healthy, are not actually attainable!
However, by virtue of being in the media in the first place, they are set up as the goal. THE goal for girls to attain and for their life partners to desire. No amount of "But honey, it's more important to be beautiful on the inside" is going to make that much of a dent, as teens obsess about the "thigh gap."
What's the solution?
Parents are not powerless. Neither are teachers, coaches, grandparents, mentors, Girl Scout Troop leaders, or all the other important adults in a child's life. We can, and must, be as savvy as the advertisers. Our influence is greater, because we are trusted sources!
1. Teach kids to look for the trick. Girls and boys can learn to look with a skeptical eye at the billboards, magazines and commercials that inundate them. Common Sense Media has great resources for explaining this issue, and you'll see some great real vs. published ads and pictures of performers and models during the show. Some really have to be seen to be believed!
2. Challenge the tweens and teens you know. Ask the hard questions. "How do you decide which clothes to buy? What celebrities do you admire? Why? Are advertisers allowed to lie, or mislead? Who gets your money? What have they done to deserve it?
3. Watch your words at the grocery store or the mall. It's so natural to call a stranger's child "Princess" or praise the curly hair or cool shoes on a neighbor's little one. Want kids to grow up valuing their own inner beauty? Then we as adults need to look for it, and ignore (yes, ignore!) the external features. Build self-esteem by praising something over which a child has some control!
"You're waiting so patiently!"
"Way to go, helping your grown-up!"
"You look very curious!"
"Are you having an adventure?"
" I like that smile."
4. Praise the process. It's the process our kids can take real pride in. "You look nice" doesn't feel nearly as great as "You look ready to... (learn, create, lead, discover)." And "Your grades are great" doesn't create the same pride as "I'm impressed with your perseverance, dedication, scholarship." Praising the way our kids play the game is not going to convince them that winning doesn't matter. It will simply teach them to value their own effort and to keep putting it out there.
There were so many great take-home messages for parents in this episode, I hope you'll check it out for yourself, and the SmartParent community to see all the ways we can empower our kids!