How to Talk to Little Girls

I went to a dinner party at a friend’s home last weekend, and met her five-year-old daughter for the first time.

Little Maya was all curly brown hair, doe-like dark eyes, and adorable in her shiny pink nightgown.  I wanted to squeal, “Maya, you’re so cute!  Look at you!  Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing!”

But I didn’t.  I squelched myself.  As I always bite my tongue when I meet little girls, restraining myself from my first impulse, which is to tell them how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are.

What’s wrong with that?  It’s our culture’s standard talking-to-little-girls icebreaker, isn’t it?  And why not give them a sincere complement to boost their self-esteem?  Because they are so darling I just want to burst when I meet them, honestly. Hold that thought for just a moment.

This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat.  In my book, ThinkStraight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize.  Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart.  A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers.  This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.  It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23.  As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy.  What’s missing?  A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

That’s why I force myself to talk to little girls as follows.

“Maya,” I said, crouching down at her level, looking into her eyes, “very nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, in that trained, polite, talking-to-adults good girl voice.

“Hey, what are you reading?” I asked, a twinkle in my eyes.  I love books.  I’m nuts for them.  I let that show.

Her eyes got bigger, and the practiced, polite facial expression gave way to genuine excitement over this topic.  She paused, though, a little shy of me, a stranger.

“I LOVE books,” I said.  “Do you?”

Most kids do.

“YES,” she said.  “And I can read them all by myself now!”

“Wow, amazing!” I said.  And it is, for a five year old.  You go on with your bad self, Maya.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.

“I’ll go get it!  Can I read it to you?”

Purplicious was Maya’s pick and a new one to  me, as Maya snuggled next to me on the sofa and proudly read aloud every word, about our heroine who loves pink but is tormented by a group of girls at school who only wear black.  Alas, it was about girls and what they wore, and how their wardrobe choices defined their identities.  But after Maya closed the final page, I steered the conversation to the deeper issues in the book:  mean girls and peer pressure and not going along with the group.  I told her my favorite color in the world is green, because I love nature, and she was down with that.

Not once did we discuss clothes or hair or bodies or who was pretty.  It’s surprising how hard it is to stay away from those topics with little girls, but I’m stubborn.

I told her that I’d just written a book, and that I hoped she’d write one too one day.  She was fairly psyched about that idea.  We were both sad when Maya had to go to bed, but I told her next time to choose another book and we’d read it and talk about it.  Oops.  That got her too amped up to sleep, and she came down from her bedroom a few times, all jazzed up.

So, one tiny bit of opposition to a culture that sends all the wrong messages to our girls.  One tiny nudge towards valuing female brains.  One brief moment of intentional role modeling.  Will my few minutes with Maya change our multibillion dollar beauty industry, reality shows that demean women, our celebrity-manic culture?  No.  But I did change Maya’s perspective for at least that evening.

Try this the next time you meet a little girl.  She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it.  Ask her what she’s reading.   What does she like and dislike, and why?  There are no wrong answers.  You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain.  For older girls, ask her about current events issues:  pollution, wars, school budgets slashed.  What bothers her out there in the world?  How would she fix it if she had a magic wand?  You may get some intriguing answers.  Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books.   Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.

And let me know the response you get at

Here’s to changing the world, one little girl at a time.


25 thoughts on “How to Talk to Little Girls

  1. Love everything that you say. Preoccupation with superficial things does not lend itself to real confidence, and is certainly dangerous to a young girl’s mind. I applaud your efforts !!

  2. I am teary-eyed at reading the actual exchange that took place with Maya, as I was busy preparing food. You are so absolutely dead-on and brilliant and changing the world! I and the rest of the world are blessed to know and love you!

  3. Lisa, I think you are amazing for what you do for little, girls & woman alike, I think you raised your daughter, perfectly, and I want to see you out there preaching your book THINk I THINK every woman should read it and take it to heart, I have 2 daughters, my 25 yr old had anorexia, and it was a nightmare, at best, my other daughter is 16 and a cheer leader, she is semi concerned with her weight, i keep a close eye on her, Thank you for putting information out there to help others xoxo

  4. As the mother of four, two beautiful smart girls a pair from triplet plus one older brother , I aspire to encourage them
    Everyday that they are not only beautiful, but smart and inspiring in their own right! They like their mon and dad they live to read and and we will encourage them until they beat us with sticks! And then even some more ! Be strong my daughters where ever you are!

  5. I’ve read your piece on ‘Little Girls…’ and I’m sorry, but it was a bit ridiculous for the most part. Not every little girl is textbook, so putting them all into one category is just absurd.

    To quote you, “I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.”

    Why is that? It all comes down to one factor. Parents. Parents are the BIGGEST influence in a child’s life.

    What happens if Mom constantly says how fat she is in earshot of her daughter? Perhaps Dad drops F-bombs every other word or belittles Mom. You get the point. Children live what they learn! There is even a poem about it….

    I don’t have a fancy University degree hanging on my wall, but I’m a very smart woman. I know what MY children need and address it accordingly. My husband and I constantly compliment our daughter. We tell her how beautiful, loved, and special she is everyday. If she has a pretty dress on, we let her know. It’s not going to make her dumb or focus solely on appearance. That’s just a excuse.

    ‘Absent’ parents are what make a child feel inferior. I don’t know one girl age 4 to 64 that doesn’t love to be complimented or hear they’re beautiful. In fact, I believe that it has adverse effects down the line. Building confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth while they’re young is so beneficial and crucial.

    Take it from someone that was never told they were pretty growing up.

  6. Lisa, thank you for the article. You asked to hear about responses so I thought I would share. My baby girl turned 23 yesterday and I have been following this advice since before she was born with the many children I have been around. While I did also tell my daughter that she is pretty, I have always focused more on her intelligence. My daughter is one of the brightest, most caring individuals I have met. And yes, I am a proud Mom. She graduated valedictorian of her high school class when she was 16 and is currently working on her Master of Divinity at Yale. Unfortunately though, while my daughter is proud of her intelligence, she still struggles with self-image. While we as individuals, may leave points of light in the character of a child, society as a whole does still paint the background. May your words help inspire others to fill many points of light in those around them.

  7. Lisa, I agree wholeheartedly with your “Little Girls” article. Another upsetting focus sold to little girls – like my 5 year-old granddaughter: PRINCESSES. For little girls, everything is all about princesses: Jasmine, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Arielle, etc. Disney is getting rich and our little girls become obsessed with PERFECT beauty and being thin and shapely. And how sad for the many precious little girls who grow up to be precious women, but who are not thin and pretty, so they don’t even realize their own greatness.

  8. Pingback: Talking to our kids | Born Just Right

  9. I’m a 50+ school teacher. Your book is summer reading brought to my attention by my grad school daughter. Lovin’ it! It’s fabulous! (See, wasn’t that so much more fun to hear that about a book, rather than some crazy kill-your-ankles shoes?)

  10. Pingback: thoughts on being a role model || tea@elevensies

  11. I absolutely love your Book! I am so glad you shared your experience with Maya, you are dead on when it comes to our cultural ways when talking to little girls. I took my little cousin to the book store at the time she was 5 and she didn’t want to leave the bookstore. We sat and read about 5 books, after pulling her out of the bookstore she said my mommy never takes me into the bookstore only clothing and shoe stores. I kept saying to myself what a disservice she’s doing to you. None the less I now have regular bookstore dates with my little cousin and we even got her a library card!! She’s 7 now and reading any and everything she can get her hands on.

  12. Lisa,
    This is the way I tried to raise my daughters. It’s so hard to combat the idiocy and cruelty of the larger modern culture. It really takes a lot of being available and open, and not giving up through the tough teen years. Even when girls are beautiful, the psychological aim of our advertising makes them continually insecure, and to look to others for self worth. I read your interview in Veg News, and was gratified to see you are also a vegan, which our family is also working towards.

  13. @ Jenny “Take it from someone who was never told they were pretty growing up.” You say that like it gives you credibility. It doesn’t.

    I’m told I’m pretty virtually every day. I hate it — being told that I dress well or that I’ve got good sense is one thing, because it reflects a mental capacity of it’s own. But I hate that people look at me and think that all I am is a pretty face, even though I’m the only one in my job who can calculate percentages without a calculator and am learning statistics (I work in retail.) Not to mention it gets me a lot of unwanted attention from guys. My favorite comeback for when someone thinks they’re complimenting me is to say ‘Of course — I’m smart. Brains beget beauty.’ or ‘So? I’m also studying for a social work degree — that’s MUCH more attractive.’

    If you’re telling your youngling that she’s pretty to teach her that it’s what on the inside that counts (i.e. she’s not necessarily pretty by traditional beauty standards) then that’s fine, go you! But do you also talk to her about her mind and morals? After you tell her how beautiful she is, do you then ask if she learned anything new, that day? Or — and I love this strategy for my family, friends, and complete strangers I have to talk to at work — make those compliments something like ‘You look SMART today’ or ‘Don’t you look confident?’ or ‘You could run for president in a suit like that’ or (I actually recently said this to someone and she was quite flattered) ‘If that’s what you look like without makeup, you should put your face up on billboards — the cosmetics industry would shut down in a year.’

    So, remember, it’s like Lisa advises in her book: “Think of it like a big, buttered up, sugary cake with thick frosting and sprinkles — a little bit every once in a while is fine, but too much, and you’ll puke.”

  14. Do you have a recommendation for disney princess alternatives? I let my three year old daughter watch a barbie movie in the summer and now it’s all she wants to see when she gets a chance to watch TV! I’d love to find a great movie she can get lost in but without the princess theme!

  15. I really enjoyed reading the article and appreciate purposeful initiatives for young people. The article really makes you think about your interactions with young people and how to help guide them towards what really matters in life.

  16. How true! Compliments about appearance should be given in moderation. My little sister is 5 and I have never heard her complain about her appearance. And although I admit I am guilty of trying to make her look “ideal,” for the most part our mom has taught her that looks don’t really matter. Not to say that you should be a slob, but looks aren’t everything. (OMG, I sound like my mom.) This is a very true thing. We need to teach children that it’s what they do that matters, not what they look like.

  17. thank you lisa for a most excellent eye-opening book. i couldn’t put it down and you have inspired me in so many ways. i quit wearing eyeshadow and blush, and still look presentable at work and in my community. i am reading books off your recommended reading list and was pleasantly surprised to discover i had already read three of them. i have urged my two daughters and all my friends to read this book…not to do so is a travesty. i also recommend it to single fathers of daughters and really, any man who cares about the women in their lives and just want to better their communities, their world. thanks again lisa, you rock!

  18. Hi Lisa! I saw your article elsewhere and tracked down your site so I could say THANK YOU for this. I also feel like the article should be titled “How to talk to ANY girl” because at 25 I am continually amazed at how people speak to me. I hold a very fast-paced job that I am successful in and passionate about while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in master’s degree program. I hike. I camp. I travel. I cook. I teach yoga… and yet, the one thing I hear in almost ANY conversation with people is “When are you going to get married?” Granted, I have been with my boyfriend for 5 years and I understand people’s natural nosy-ness, but it is aggravating, and frankly a little insulting, none the less. I can’t remember the last time someone asked me what I was reading or how I felt about current events. I know I am not alone, but when I feel that the only topics my peer group can discuss is celebrities and which bridesmaid dresses take the least amount of attention away from the bride, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider. I hope readers of this article will take the advice to heart when talking to any female!

  19. Whats Missing you ask? Let me suggest to you that it may be biological. Let me explain. There is a great Research study done by the YMCA, Dartmouth Med School, and the Institute for American Values that’s titled “Hardwired to connect, The NEW scientific Case for Authoritative Communities.” On page 18 of this study done by 33 doctors, research scientists, and mental health professionals, there is a case made for little girls hitting puberty too early due to the lack of closeness to their BIOLOGICAL father. Let me quote the study,” The researchers suggest that exposure to an unrelated male’s pheromones accelerates a girls physical sexual development, whereas exposure to her father’s pheromones has exactly the opposite effect.” Now, why has this study been kept so quiet? It throws scientific data right in the face of two very potent social issues….. divorce and same gender unions. Now, you take a young girl without her biological father and expose her to this culture of the internet, school social issues and homosexuality, and I will show you a young girl that doesn’t stand a chance of growing up in a world of innocence as she deserves from a solid great family with her biological parents. Until we realize that from an adult perspective, the young in our communities dont stand a chance. The biological mother & father are critical to a healthy young person and we cant seem to admit that to ourselves.

  20. This article deals with very important and very real issues.
    I try not to tell a young girl she looks cute. We live in an area where looks are stressed as so impt. (along with money money and more money). I still notice true talent & happiness comes in all shapes, sizes, looks, colors,etc. I tell our beautifull girl how smart she is and compliment her when she thinks about being a Dr or engineer. I’d just like to see her in college and value who she is. I got teary from the truth of what you wrote. Thanks so very much and may you be blessed to continue being special.

  21. Just wanted to write and tell you that this was very impactful to me. I read it last year as a brother to 8 sisters, an uncle to many nieces, and a friend to many with small children. I have kept this in mind in my interactions with them, and find myself catching all the same impulses you mention, then steering the conversation to reinforce things that should be more important. Thank you for being a voice for positive change in the every-day.

  22. I totally agree that our words send messages (many not intended) to our girls. We must watch watch we say, but I think it is much bigger than that. It is at least equally important that we are careful what we let our girls watch, read, listen too. Most magazines promote a self-centered focus and makes the readers think they need all these things to make themselves beautiful. I remember as a teenager not knowing I had problems with my body until I read about how I needed thicker hair or thinner eyebrows, etc. Also, the shows they may watch on tv and the music they may listen to nowadays send tons of messages that woman are sex objects and the only way to attract a man is with their body. It also tells them that sex appeal is the most important thing a girl can offer. It is so sad! We as parents need to guard our children from this type of thinking and influence as much as possible, so that when they are grown they will know the difference and be women that expect the best and won’t settle for less than being treated like the smart, valuable, treasured women that they are.

  23. Dear Lisa,

    I agree with you. I am eight and I love books too. I think girls should think more about their minds than beauty. My issue is that Disney princesses are always so dressed up and have make up all over them. I also have a problem with Barbie she is too skinny to walk. I think children’s toys shouldn’t be all about being perfect or beautiful. Also I see on billboards a bunch of signs that say American Apparel where the girls are partly nude. On magazines I don’t think its right to shave off parts of model’s bodies, its just not okay. I was thinking that maybe I could start a blog. Do you think that is a good idea? Please write back my please send my mom your address first at so she can put you on my safe list. Thank you! Elise

  24. Growing up as a man with two younger brothers and 10 out of 15 male cousins (of the five female cousins, 3 were 15 years older, and one 6 years younger, with three brothers of her own) I was just not exposed to people close to home talking to little girls. So now both my brothers are married and now have daughters of their own, who both recently turned 6 within a month of each other. When it came time to pick a birthday card for them I was astounded by the number that focused on ‘beautiful’ as an adjective to describe the birthday girl. The points you make here dawned on me then, which is why your article struck such a chord with me, and why I am writing here. So I actively chose a genderless card and in my message in the card wrote “To a …. girl on her 6th birthday”. I deliberately used big words as adjectives to describe her, so she would go to her mum or dad and seek clarification of their meaning, and I only chose words that reflected on her intellect, intelligence, friendliness, helpfulness and work ethic. I strictly avoided anything to do with appearance, or social acceptance. I think I will continue to do this going forward. Thank you for putting into words something I discovered for myself but had not found a way to express 🙂 One thing I think is absolutely vital, that didn’t get mentioned as much in your article, is it is even more vital that men learn to speak to little girls the way you are saying. Because it is us, and our sons, as they get older, who they will seek acceptance from as puberty hits, and it is vital that they learn what acceptance from a real man looks like. (And that we model for boys what to truly value in a woman, an idea for a different post)

  25. Pingback: Como Conversar com Meninas | Mães Loucas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Site by ... Websites for Authors