One of my most vivid school memories is sitting with a friend, fervently discussing who was the prettiest girl in our year. We spent hours evaluating figures, skin, cheekbones and hair.
This was in the 1980s, before social media had riddled adolescents with insecurity, before shows such as Love Island made it seem as though having £250,000 of plastic surgery was de rigueur.
Today’s world, the world in which I’m bringing up my seven-year-old daughter Iona, is light years away from the seemingly benign world in which I grew up.
Marina Fogle, pictured, with her daughter Iona has said she will never tell the youngster that she is pretty following the past year she has spent working on her podcast The Parent Hood
Since starting a podcast called The Parent Hood, I’ve spent the last year cross-examining professionals about how we talk to our children about sex, tragedy, terrorism, the importance of brushing your teeth – and the importance of praise. You’d be forgiven if you felt that the best way to protect your children from life’s slings and arrows was to celebrate their achievements by reminding them that they are beautiful or clever. But new research suggests that actually the opposite is true.
Professor Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, argues that how you praise your child will have a direct influence on their psychological development and how they deal with challenges.
Parents should praise effort rather than the result, she says.
So if your child performs well in a test, you should shout about how hard they tried and not that they are clever or top of the class.
By doing the latter, we are conditioning a child to worry about losing this fragile crown.
For this reason, there is a growing number of parenting experts and psychologists who believe telling girls that they are pretty is, in fact, imbuing them with an insecurity that they might not always be the prettiest. By praising them for something over which they have no influence is simply reinforcing the idea that how a woman or girl looks is her crowing achievement. And that is why I choose not to tell my daughter she is pretty.
By and large, parents think their children are gorgeous. From the moment my eldest, Ludo, was born, I gazed at him, mesmerised, taking endless photos and poring over them every time we were apart.
But we talk about boys and girls using different vocabulary: girls are often ‘cute’ and ‘beautiful’; boys are ‘strong’ and ‘feisty’.
When my father-in-law came to meet new-born Iona, he respectfully remarked that she was beautiful. Wrinkled, scaly and cross, beautiful Iona was not. ‘She’s not, and I know it, but I love her all the same,’ I responded wryly.
In the past years, though, Iona has become a beautiful person. Her hair has changed from black to blonde and her eyes are now a dazzling shade of blue.
When she marches purposefully into a room, she lights it up. But is she pretty? I ask myself. The truth is that I don’t really care. I’ll praise her for what she’s achieved – her generosity, how good a friend she is, her tenacity – rather than what nature has determined.
In her bestselling book Calmer, Happier, Easier Parenting, Noel Janis-Norton insists on the importance of reflective praise when parents communicate with their children rather than praising them thoughtlessly. Too many of us deviate to the superlative, using the same adjectives – brilliant, excellent, terrific – to praise our children. The trouble, says Janis-Norton, is that this praise is too general and vague to be meaningful to kids who respond much better to specific descriptions of why their behaviour is good.
As a result, whenever my children do anything right, before I praise them, I take a moment to think how to describe it to them.
I laud them for their determination, their perseverance, their kindness, their empathy. I’m clear why they have impressed me. But how they look? It honestly couldn’t matter less to me, and because they had no hand in creating any prettiness they might have, I don’t see why I should praise them for it. Being pretty, or what society currently believes is appealing, is pure luck. The problem is that being beautiful does matter in the world as a whole.
Women in particular, but increasingly boys too, are being bombarded by alarmingly influential media – apps, adverts, entertainment – that tell them that how you look is what defines you.
It even has a name – the objectification theory is the idea that because the world is constantly telling women that their primary form of currency is their appearance, they become obsessed with how they are being observed, how they look to the outside world. They worry constantly that they are too fat, pale, wobbly or shiny.
Renee Engeln, an American psychology professor and author of Beauty Sick, is a fierce believer that we should stop using the word pretty to describe girls. If we tell them the whole time that they are pretty, we are telling them that what they look like matters.
DR ELLIE CANNON: We must end body image obsession
A great deal of what Marina says will ring true for parents of teenagers. With an explosion in mental health problems in youngsters, we all need to explore the reasons why.
Social media has led to a huge effect on self-esteem, body image and self-confidence among girls and women.
But I would argue boys are also affected. Expectation for the male body has evolved in the past decade – I have seen boys in my clinic as young as ten tell me they want a six-pack.
Our obsession with the aesthetic was illustrated perfectly with last week’s news that Botox jabs are being dished out at Superdrug. As teenagers, my friends and I tried on lip gloss; our daughters are being tempted in to get a cosmetic procedure.
I agree with Noel Janis-Norton’s approach of descriptive praise as I used that a lot with my own children.
But I fear that, given the expectations our kids will face in terms of the body beautiful, no matter how clever or gifted they are in other ways, it’s going to take a lot more than that to keep them mentally healthy.
‘When we comment on a girl’s cuteness more consistently than anything else we suggest that her appearance means more than her other qualities,’ Engeln argues.
I was interested to hear my mother’s perspective. ‘You never told us we were beautiful when we were growing up. Was that a conscious decision?’ I asked, poised for her maternal wisdom. ‘No, it’s because you weren’t,’ she responded matter- of-factly.
I was definitely a gawky teenager, my teeth burdened with braces, my hair a dull brown and my face a little round from the endless rounds of buttered toast I ate at boarding school. I was no prodigy either, hopeless at every sport and loitering near the bottom of the class.
But I could make people laugh, I was a protective friend, and I could fight for what I wanted.
Now in my 40s, would I wish beauty on my daughter? To be tempted into the world of modelling or acting, where no secret is made of the fact that what they look like is their currency?
I swiftly hand my daughter another piece of buttered toast.
As Kathryn Hollins, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist specialising in children and the family dynamic says: ‘Our greatest responsibility as parents is to encourage our children to accept themselves for who they are, to embrace their temperament, their personality, what they look like. We do this by ourselves loving and accepting our children for who they are.’
I’d informed her how, when friends or strangers tell me that Iona is pretty, I don’t know what to say. Hollins reminds me of what I’ve talked about at length on The Parent Hood – honesty. It would be false say, ‘Oh no she isn’t’, if actually she is.
Instead, we need to think about what makes a beautiful person, where how a woman looks is part of the bigger package, the sentiment behind the smile.
‘Beautiful people are not better people,’ says Hollins. ‘But if we have things that people like about us – be that how we look, how we sing or how we write – then we’ve got something that we can add to the sparkle of the world.’
She’s right and I start to feel uncomfortable on my high horse. Which is ultimately the point.
Principle is all very well, but on the day my precious daughter has the world pitted against her, when her clothes don’t fit and the boys are being dreadful, of course I’ll tell her that she’s pretty.
How much that will mean to her I don’t know because I’m not an impartial observer. I’ll tell her that she’s the most beautiful girl in the world, but that is because the love affair that started on the day she was born continues to intensify every day I spend with her.
But for now I’ll keep that a secret, and instead steer clear of the P-word, using instead the hundreds of more fitting adjectives the English language has to offer.
I will keep on telling my Matilda she’s pretty
By KATIE NICHOL
My daughter Matilda was never a pretty baby. Cute, yes. Squeezable, sure. But not beautiful. She was kooky-looking, with startlingly strong eyebrows and a perfectly round head that earned her the nickname ‘clockface’.
Matilda first asked me if she was beautiful aged three as I read her Rapunzel at bedtime. As always, she remarked on the protagonist’s long hair: ‘Mummy, Rapunzel’s hair is so beautiful. Am I beautiful too?’
I replied in the way that any mother would. ‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the world,’ I told her and I have continued to say so ever since.
Katie Nichol, pictured with her daughter Matilda and baby son George, said she believes it is important for a mother to tell their children they are beautiful
Perhaps I should have told her looks aren’t everything, but my maternal instinct kicked in and I wanted to build her confidence.
Her short, tufty hair wouldn’t grow into long locks and this made her self-conscious, resisting trips to the hairdresser. ‘I want to have long hair and be pretty!’ she’d cry.
Each time, I’d issue the same earnest reassurance – she was just as pretty as the other girls.
Now that Matilda is almost six, I am blessed with a strong-willed, confident and well-rounded child. And I don’t regret my compliments one bit.
Whether we like it or not, women are frequently judged on their appearances. I know this all too well having been subjected to unkind comments following television appearances.
It upsets me to think that Matilda’s natural chutzpah might be knocked by our aesthetics-obsessed world. Of course it’s not all about looks. I teach both Matilda and my one-year-old son George that it is the kindness in your heart that makes you beautiful. I praise compassion, sympathy and generosity with the same vigour.
Recently, Matilda and I were walking through our local park when she spotted a classmate with learning difficulties playing alone. Without instruction, she darted over to play with him. This act of pure kindness made her utterly beautiful – and I told her so.
At a recent sports day, she fell over during the sack race, only to jump back up and eventually win. I told her she’d shown grit and determination. When she tidies her bedroom, I say she’s conscientious and organised. Equally, if she’s pulled on a pretty frock and brushed her hair, I compliment her effort and beauty.
For my sins, am I stuck with a superficial, vacuous daughter who dreams of becoming a beauty queen? Quite the contrary.
Matilda couldn’t be less bothered by the way she looks. Being happy and having fun with her friends is far more important. Nevertheless, she tells me that she likes it when I call her beautiful, so why should I stop?
Last week, I asked my warrior princess daughter: ‘Would you rather be good at sports or beautiful?’
Her response was immediate: ‘Good at sports, Mummy. You don’t win medals for being beautiful.’