Talking to your granddaughters

Ever heard a grandparent (or been the grandparent) who rolls up to see the grandkids, taking one glowing look at your granddaughter with pride and smiling, saying “don’t you look gorgeous”… “my beautiful granddaughter” “what lovely curls and a beautiful dress”.

Fact of the matter is, to you she IS beautiful and your instinct is right to tell her… or is it?   

My grandparents thought I was beautiful. I know they did. But this isn’t what they conversed with me on. I would arrive regularly and they’d talk to me about my interests, my thoughts. They’d talk about my hobbies and they’d talk about theirs.

We’d develop shared interests. They’d offer to explore new things with me like trees, and nature and outdoors; something my parents didn’t have as much time to. And they would challenge me to test my mind with spelling, maths tests and play based learning that leveraged their time and interest.

My grandma let me put on a bit of lipstick and a dab of her perfume “because ladies need to enjoy feeling good”… but they never painted my nails nor over-did the beauty stuff. In fact there was never a whole heap of mirrors nor mirror-time.

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Sure, your granddaughter probably is beautiful, biased or not. But have you stopped and thought about the impact of the fact that the first thing you do might be to point out to her that aesthetics are more important than anything else? That they are the first things most people do to young girls when they meet them?

In America (and perhaps Australia too), 15 to 18 per cent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and 25 per cent 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.

It is heartbreaking when you stop to think about it.

When I started raising girls, I didn’t know that aesthetics weren’t to be the first topic of conversation. In fact, as my girls always had very spectacular curly hair, they could stop traffic with their looks, which always made me a proud toddler-mother. People would stop them in the street and tell them how cute they were, fondle their curls and smile. Apparently this pride was not a good start.

The politically correct and supportive thing to say to today’s generation of young girls is, “Hello darling, how have you been? What have you been learning this week?” or,  “What are you reading this week?”, placing the emphasis on growing, rather than looks. Teaching a girl that her brain matters more than the colour of her nail polish, or curl of her hair at a young age sets up an ambition to improve on these things and place them as a priority over aesthetic judgements, something I am very keen to see absolve. I find it interesting and curious to use these learnings on my own daughters, who have grown now into smart young girls who both love looking good and thinking cleverly. It is surprisingly how easy it is to redirect ones conversation away from aesthetics and over to learning and growth, with a little self-consciousness.

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My grandparents, through some of their incredibly insightful teachings set standards in my head that I perhaps didn’t even know had settled there until a few years ago – my Grandpa always said to me, “You must go to the university” from the age of about 4. He left his mortar and cloak in my dress-up box, making university look special to me. He built a picture of myself in my own mind wearing a mortar and cloak one day – a very empowering picture in those impressionable teenage years.

In fact, I give my grandfather credit for forming my early ambitions. He taught me about language early, teaching me to spell “ornithorhynchus” (platypus) at the age of 5, and encouraging me to try learning language well. I guess it is now getting plenty of uses here.

It is funny to look at it from a grandparent’s perspective and reflect, but it still seems important. I am a mother of girls and I want them to grow up believing that they are special, not for aesthetic values, but for what is inside them: their hearts and minds.

Experts say the best thing you can do is strike up conversations based on your grandchild’s reading, music and learning interests. Things like… “What is your favourite book?” and then perhaps offer to read together. Then, reading together you have the power to drive further conversation about the topics the books covers, exploring the ways life plays out in the plot. It says to your girl subliminally, “explore your texts for meaning…” or look beneath, which is what I would want my children to learn.

It’s an interesting thought… and perhaps one you agree or disagree with vehemently. But, the last thing we want to do is raise a generation of dumbed down young girls who think aesthetics is everything.  Would you want to be responsible for that? 

[post script:  I am certainly not saying don’t tell your grandkids they are beautiful. As you can see above, I tell my daughters they are beautiful all the time. But the question is, should it be the first and most important messages they hear – Rebecca]