My daughter is 10 years old. Overall, she's a pretty confident kid, for which I'm incredibly grateful. But I'm not naive: she's fast approaching the age where most girls' self-esteem begins to plummet, when self-worth becomes tied to appearance, to the exclusion of everything else. (These statistics are horrifying: 80% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, while body satisfaction hits rock bottom at ages 12-15 -- when their bodies are changing the most! -- without recovering at all until age 20!). The fact is that it can be tough to think of yourself a weed among a garden full of roses -- at least, I know when I was 11, it definitely was for me.
So how do we convince our kids that despite the hype, even weeds are beautiful?
I was talking with a group of girlfriends about this recently, and I mentioned a few of the things that I'm pretty intentional about in our house, in order to help Alex navigate this time of her life in the best way possible. Again, we're just now entering her tweenage years, and I'm certainly no parenting expert, but I'd thought I'd share my thoughts here with you, in the event you might find them helpful in your home.
1) I'm a big proponent of telling your kid he/she is beautiful. I feel like there's a trend happening where people believe that telling your child that s/he is good-looking is a bad thing -- like it's somehow telling them s/he somehow "less than," or advocating that looks are really the only thing that matters. To be frank, I think that's total hogwash -- if your own parent isn't going to tell you that you're beautiful in his/her eyes, then who the hell will? (And honestly, even if my daughter thinks "you're only saying that because you're my mom," I figure that she must take a little comfort in the fact that at least her mom is saying it, you know?) I think the mistake comes when people make that the only thing they say about their kids, or say that to the exclusion of all the other awesome things they are. Complimenting talents, intelligence, caring, kindness, compassion and empathy are extremely important, and should be done often -- but I don't think that means that telling your child s/he's beautiful is a bad thing, either.
(Besides, the fact is that I truly, honestly believe Alex to be very beautiful. Why would I withhold this belief from her?)
2) I'm also (unsurprisingly) a proponent of advocating different as beautiful. I'm very careful and mindful to point out beauty of every kind to Alex -- I point out beautiful old people and beautiful young people, beautiful people who are different shapes, and different sizes, and different races, and different religions. I think when your kid sees you sincerely expressing how beautiful you think people are who don't look like what the media defines as "beautiful," your telling her that she's beautiful gains a bit more credibility beyond "well you're my mom, you're supposed to say that." (I might be making that up, but I'm going with it). I'm also really big on making STRONG beautiful, as opposed to thin being beautiful, since I have a daughter who will never be a media ideal of tall, blonde and thin. Her black belt in karate has done TONS for her self esteem, and I point out beautiful strong people as often as possible -- in fact, the Olympics were awesome for that. We discovered Paige McPherson, a Tae Kwon Do Olympian (she won the bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics), who actually looks like Alex (and shares a similar story -- adoption, multiracial, passionate about dance as well as martial arts) -- and Alex now follows her on Instagram. It has been lovely to have a positive role model for Alex, and it has helped Alex pick through the messages about what is beautiful on her own.
Identifying celebrities who share your kid's interests, and sharing YouTube videos and interviews with them (make sure that they're celebrities who also seem to share your moral code, though -- the last thing you want is some arrogant, drug-using-superstar-in-their-own-minds to send the wrong message!) is a great way to have your child feel less alone, and see her own potential. It's even better if the celebrity resembles your child -- having someone to identify with who represents attainable beauty might help as well (Lupita N'yongo spoke so eloquently about this herself).
3) I don't buy fashion magazines, and actually don't have them in my house. I don't make a big deal about it, I just don't buy them. (Even Vanity Fair, which I love for the photography, I only read online, usually on airplanes, when Alex isn't around). I feel like Alex sees enough media that shows what "beauty" is suppose to look like, without me feeding into that media hype. I also am pretty big about curating Alex's movie consumption to show beauty & "coolness" of all different kinds ("Akeelah and the Bee" is a current favourite.) So Alex's media consumption is watched closely, so that all forms of beauty -- different races, smarts, even traditional "coolness" -- are pretty evenly presented.
(My "ban on fashion magazines" statement isn't entirely true: because Alex does, in fact, love fashion, over the past few years she's had a subscription to this very awesome magazine that features fashion design, crafts, and articles written by teens for teens, with models who look like everyday girls. She loves it, and pours over it every time it arrives.)
4) To that end, I let Alex take the lead on how she wants to look. I often ask Alex how she would like to dress, or what what she'd like to do to change her look, and support her experimentation (to an age-appropriate point, of course). My rules are generally that what she chooses to wear has to be weather-appropriate, that it has to fit her (which covers a multitude of "too revealing" sins), and that it has to be clean. But otherwise, I let her rock whatever she wants to. The result has been some really interesting outfits -- many that I would've never considered for her myself, but actually love on her!
As far as additional resources, I also found this wonderful list on ways to raise a confident kid -- I particularly love the point about encouraging your child to solve problems on her own instead of doing them for her. Which, incidentally, brings to mind another really fantastic site -- the Khan Academy -- which I've let Alex loose on. One day, she was very quiet for hours, and when I went to investigate, I found her engrossed in teaching herself how to code. She could not have been more proud of herself. And while I'm on the subject, if you've got a tween/teenager in your house, be sure to check out Smart Girls At The Party, run by Amy Poehler and my friend Meredith Walker. Some really great stuff is happening over there.
But as I said at the beginning of this, I'm very new at this, and as parenting often is, I'm definitely a work in progress. To that end, I'll happily take any advice from you guys: how do you help your kids navigate their adolescence with their self-esteem intact; or, in the alternative, what was the most self-esteem building thing that happened in your teenage years? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments, below.