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5 Things Parents Say to Daughters That Can Turn Them Into Victims

As a longtime teacher, Ms. Meyers knows the messages that hold girls back, rob them of their power, and make them feel less than.

If we teach girls how to say "no" when they're young, they won't struggle with it as women.

If we teach girls how to say "no" when they're young, they won't struggle with it as women.

Doing More Harm Than Good

1. Be nice.

2. Smile!

3. Give a hug!

4. Anything about their weight.

5. Be happy!

Many moms and dads speak these words reflexively to their daughters without realizing the harm that they're doing. Each of these seemingly innocuous statements is examined below with an explanation of why it's detrimental to girls.

Robbing Girls of Their Right to Say No

Today, women are integrated into the fabric of society like never before, gaining seats of power in politics, comprising more than half of all college students, and making steady progress to secure high-paying jobs in the male-dominated STEM fields. Yet, while moving forward, they’ve confronted competitive, cut-throat environments that their childhoods didn’t prepare them to handle. In fact, many of the messages that they repeatedly heard while growing up left them ill-prepared for the realities of the world and often made them unwitting victims.

A recent story in the news about a middle school social illustrates how girls are still given the same old messages that rob them of their power. In advance of the event, teachers told the preteens that they weren’t allowed to say no when asked to dance by a fellow student. When a concerned mother of a daughter complained to school administrators about this edict, she was told that it was necessary to promote proper etiquette and to teach kids to be nice to everyone.

Many women who heard this story were instantly triggered as helpless moments from their own childhoods came to mind when they were told to be nice. They remembered how this order silenced their voices, stripped away their autonomy, and made them lose touch with their intuition. Some recall how that command caused them to become a casualty of date rape, to tolerate sexual harassment at work, and to stuff their negative feelings with food, drugs, and alcohol. When a girl is told that she doesn’t have the right to give a firm but polite no, she gets a message that can turn her into a lifelong victim. With that in mind, here are five disempowering things parents should stop saying to their daughters.

1. Be Nice

When Katie was a girl, her mother always told her to be nice, which meant don’t make waves, don’t be loud, don’t fight, and don’t speak up for yourself. Be passive and polite. When she’d leave their house to visit her friend next door or exit the car for school, her mom would inevitably call after her with the same two words “play nicely!”

Today, Katie resents that her mom stressed this with her but not her rambunctious brothers. She’s now convinced that being nice made her neglect her own needs throughout her life and become a patsy. Because of this, she’s adamant about not requesting it of her own two daughters who she’s rearing to be outspoken, self-assured, and not so desperate to be liked.

Dr. Marcia Sirota is a psychiatrist and the author of Be Kind, Not Nice: How to stop people-pleasing, build your confidence and discover your authentic self. She agrees that telling girls to be nice is bad advice and can create problems for them when they’re adults in their personal relationships and in their workplaces. She advises parents to offer an empowering message to their daughters by telling them to be kind to themselves and others instead of being nice, suppressing their feelings, and letting folks take advantage of them. She writes:

“Kindness emerges from someone who’s confident, compassionate and comfortable with themselves. A kind person is loving and giving out of the goodness of their heart. At the root of extreme niceness, however, are feelings of inadequacy and the need to get approval and validation from others.”

Two of the most powerful figures in entertainment, Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes, discuss how hard it is for women to say "no" because they want to be perceived as nice.

2. Smile!

Lost in thought after a brutal and exhausting day at the office, Lily stood on the platform waiting for the train to arrive. A man walked by in a hurry and declared boldly, “You’d look so much prettier if only you’d smile” before disappearing into a pack of people. His words left Lily feeling triggered, diminished, and even violated.

While some men would consider this an overreaction to an innocuous remark, more and more women understand Lily’s intense feelings because they’ve had a similar experience. This is especially true for those who are young, living and working in large cities. Tatyana Fazializadeh called out this behavior as a form of “gender-based street harassment” in an art project called “Stop Telling Women to Smile” that was designed to bring awareness to the problem. She says it “leaves women feeling vulnerable and unsafe in their communities, as if their sole purpose in leaving the house each day is to entertain men. It makes women think twice about what they wear, the routes they take, even their body language.”

Sadly, the command to smile is often heard by girls when their dads, grandfathers, and uncles cajole them to put on a happy face. At a young, impressionable age, they’re given the message that they’re supposed to hide their true feelings and put on a fake grin to please men. They conclude that their complicated emotions and passionate opinions are not nearly as interesting to guys as them looking pretty and carefree. As a consequence, they may start to stuff those feelings that society considers unattractive such as sadness, frustration, anger, and confusion. As we well know, though, the suppression of these emotions can lead to serious problems in the future such as depression, anxiety, drug addiction, and eating disorders.

3. Give a Hug!

One of the most common ways that parents unintentionally strip their girls of power is by telling them to give hugs. Believing that it’s cute, they push their daughters to embrace Aunt Lorraine at the family reunion, their teacher at the end-of-the-year celebration, and their friends at birthday parties. At a young age, girls are told to hug people even when it makes them uncomfortable. This sets them up for big trouble when they become teens and don’t know how to set boundaries with boys, say no, and follow their intuitions.

While moms and dads may think that encouraging their daughters to hug is innocuous, it actually robs them of control and makes them feel helpless. Fortunately, the Girl Scouts of America recognized this problem and issued a public statement about it as the holidays were approaching and families were gathering. It reminded parents that youngsters should never feel obliged to hug or kiss relatives. Speaking on behalf of the organization, Dr. Andrea Bastiani addressed moms and dads with these words:

"The lessons girls learn when they're young about setting physical boundaries and expecting to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older. Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help.”

4. Anything About Their Weight

It’s nearly impossible for girls to grow up in today’s society without developing issues about eating, whether it’s anorexia, bulimia, dieting, constant calorie counting, or obsessive thoughts about food. One only needs to peruse a woman’s magazine to understand why. On one page, there’s a photo of a happy family at the kitchen table devouring a mouth-watering cheesecake alongside a recipe to make it. Turn the page and there’s a photo of a drop-dead gorgeous model in short-shorts running on the beach alongside a diet plan that guarantees a 10 pound weight loss in just one week. Quite naturally, people amass these unhealthy and unrealistic messages about eating during their lifetimes and, when becoming moms and dads, they unwittingly pass them on to their daughters.

When it comes to commenting on a daughter's figure, less is more and none at all is even better. According to experts, moms and dads should never remark about their daughter's weight, even when it’s complimentary. Scientists at Cornell University found that women who recalled getting messages about their weight as girls—either positive or negative—were more likely to have a heavier body mass index and a greater dissatisfaction with their bodies.

While it's understandable that parents worry about a daughter’s weight, making comments about it will only backfire. It’s simply not a useful strategy. If moms and dads truly want to make a difference, they must put in the hard work and set a positive example. They must consume a sensible diet, enjoy a daily exercise routine, prepare healthy meals, and maintain a balanced relationship with food. If they believe that their daughter needs additional support, they should connect her with a professional.

5. Be Happy!

An online therapy company runs radio commercials, urging listeners to use their services because “you deserve to be happy.” It’s a hugely popular message in today’s society and a common one that parents give to their daughters. When their girls are struggling, feeling sad, or experiencing a setback, many moms and dads mindlessly remark, “ I just want you to be happy.”

Unfortunately, these words establish unrealistic expectations, making their children think that a constant state of bliss is somehow achievable and desirable when it isn’t. It makes kids wonder: What’s wrong with me? I’m supposed to be happy, but I’m not. They think that their lived experience of having moments of bliss mixed in with moments of anger, frustration, despair, and disappointment isn’t what others are facing. They start to chase something that they’ll never be able to catch.

The first sentence of M. Scott Peck’s highly acclaimed book, The Road Less Travelled, is: “Life is difficult.” A noted psychiatrist and author, Peck wanted his readers to understand that we’re not put here on earth to be happy; we’re here to learn. Moreover, he wanted them to appreciate that the way we acquire wisdom, strength, and character is through our problems and struggles. A person without adversity would be shallow, selfish, self-absorbed, and ill-equipped to handle life.

What do you think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers