Oooooh, look at you! You’re so pretty!”
“I love your dress! Let me see those shoes!”
“What a pretty princess!”
Look at you, you’re getting so tall! How old are you now?”
“Oh goodness, you’re so big now! You must be really strong!”
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard people use these icebreakers with your child many times. The first set for girls, and the second set usually for boys. If you’re a person over the age of 18, you’ve probably said these things yourself. I know I have.
A Compliment Is Always Good, Right?
So what’s the problem? These all sound like compliments.
The problem is that all of these greetings from adults focus on the child’s appearance. Quite simply, they emphasize gender stereotypes that girls and women should be beautiful and pleasant-to-look-at, while boys should be strong and tough.
Granted, there is some cross-over on the customary boy and girl openers. Older folks love to comment on height, because they’re often shrinking. And some people think every child is super adorable and can’t resist the ooooh-ing and ahhhh-ing. And there’s nothing wrong with that on first blush.
The Problem with Most Conversation Starters with Girls
As a conversation-starter, however, these openers tell a young child that their physical traits are the most important. Plus tweens and middle-schoolers tell me they JUST DON’T want to talk about how they look. Can you blame them? Everything’s changing at a rapid pace, and suddenly they’re hyper-aware of those changes in themselves and their peers.
After reading Lisa Bloom’s piece more than 5 years ago, I swore I wouldn’t do the “you’re so pretty!” thing anymore. But sadly, the emphasis on girls and beauty has not subsided.
Just recently, in the BBC’s “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender-Free?” a 7 year-old girl, when asked what girls do better than boys, answered “being pretty…and wearing dresses.” Waahhh waaahh (that’s me sobbing in the corner).
Almost half of all 15 year-old girls in the U.K. believed they were overweight in 2015. Common Sense Media found that 80% of 10 year-olds have been on a diet, male action figures exceed even the largest bodybuilders, and almost half of teens use social media to “make themselves look cooler.” Media images also tend to hypersexualize women of color. And with social media trends like the thigh gap and thinspiration soaring a couple of years ago, I’m scared to find out what’s next.
Let’s Value Children for Who They Are
Am I saying that telling that adorable little 3 year-old that you love her sparkly pink shoes is a guaranteed ticket to a tailspin depression or eating disorder? No.
What I AM saying is that we need to make children feel valued for WHO they are; not what they look like. If kids receive positive affirmations mostly for their appearances, they will prioritize beauty and looks over personal growth. Children’s personalities and values should come first; everything else is decoration.It’s easy to default to appearance as a conversation-starter because it’s the first thing we see. And it doesn’t require much thought. But if you really want to learn what makes kids special, try these icebreakers next time you meet a new child, visit your grandchild, or see a friend’s kid who you haven’t seen in years.
Try These Easy Conversation Starters with Children Instead:
I consulted with parents of both boys and girls, from preschool to middle school, to find out what children would ACTUALLY like to talk about, instead of their long legs or new shoes. While the looks-based greetings might happen more with girls, these suggestions work with all kids.
1. How is karate/piano/soccer going? If you already know the child loves to draw or is trying out basketball, ask her about that activity. It’s likely to be fresh in her mind and rouse excitement. If it’s something she’s good at or loves, she will feel proud to share her accomplishments.
2. What are you into right now? Conversely, this works well if you don’t know the kid that well. Or you forgot what type of lessons little Susie is taking. Plus, the child might surprise you! Maybe she’s into glow-in-the-dark stickers or marshmallows; topics you wouldn’t have guessed or broached yourself.
3. What book are you reading? My niece is a voracious reader and when I asked her this question years ago, she gave me a detailed summary of book #3 of a 5-part fantasy book series, and how it all fit together. Her excited face confirmed that she’d much rather discuss plot twists than the length of her hair.
4. What did you do today? This one is so obvious, we might actually forget it. Maybe they went to the park or went food shopping with Dad, or found a worm on the sidewalk. The random event they choose will give you insight into their little personality. Or what’s making their heart tick right now!
5. It’s nice to see you. (And…that’s it.) A friend reminded me that kids don’t always love to chit chat, especially when they’re around strangers or semi-strangers. Many would rather run in the backyard or thumb through a book than suffer through small talk with adults. Respect their need to get acclimated, and save a question for halfway into their visit. I call this “warming up.”
For a Deeper Dive, Try These Openers:
For children you know better, or with whom you spend a longer day, you might be able to dive a little deeper.
6. What’s it like being a big sister/brother? Two friends with new babies said their older children love to talk about their new sibling. What kind of funny stuff does the baby do? Let them brag a little about how they are the “older one.”
7. What do you like doing at school? This question doesn’t assume that every child loves school. But hopefully they can pick out one thing they enjoy. If you ask “how do you like school?” they’re likely to say “fine” or “good” and end there. An open-ended question will let them steer the conversation more.
8. Do you have a favorite website or app? Try this for the older kids and tweens. They know all sort of cool apps that you’ve never heard of – trust me. I wouldn’t know about music.ly without the inside scoop from a 12 year-old. For all you who’ve never heard of it…you’re welcome.
9. What’s a way that you’ve been kind this week? This one is inspired my most compassionate friend, who founded Connecticut is Kind. She inspires children and adults to be kind to one another. She created a local movement within her community to spread compassion through kindness rock gardens, daily acts of kindness, and handmade cards to neighbors who need a pick-me-up. While this question is best suited for children you know well, the answers are likely to be surprising and beautiful.
And isn’t THAT type of beauty the beauty that we care about most?
Tell us your suggestions, too. What greetings work well in your experience?