Our culture rewards girls and young women for being cute, but here's why we try to send a different message at home. Photo: Stocksy
"Do you think I'm cute?" my six-year-old daughter asked.
We'd just spent the day with relatives who remarked frequently on the cuteness of her 18-month-old sister.
When I told my six year old that I didn't think she was cute, she looked devastated. So I explained.
I told her that cuteness is a word we use to describe babies and puppies: both are small, weak, naïve, and have limited understanding of the world. The cute don't have power or control over their lives and they're valued primarily for their appearance.
I told my daughter that she has so much more to offer herself and the world than cuteness, like her bravery, curiosity, ambition, intelligence, sense of humour and empathy. And as soon as her sister grows out of being a toddler I hope that the same adjectives will apply to her andcute will be forgotten.
I'm not sure my daughter fully understood and I can't blame her. Our culture rewards and praises girls and young women for being cute. It's little wonder many continue to aspire to be cute long after they should have given it up.
But by being cute, girls and women participate in their own oppression by forfeiting the opportunity to be taken seriously. My husband and I make a deliberate effort to reject the culture of cute.
1. No baby talk
For some bizarre reason it's considered sweet for girls to talk like babies even when they're not. They pitch their voice unnaturally high, use one word sentences and ignore the basic rules of grammar.
This might get them an extra scoop of ice cream or a new toy today, but it's not going to get them a pay rise, a promotion or credibility in any social, professional or domestic situation in the future.
We don't tolerate baby talk in our family. Ever. As soon as our daughter was capable, we expected full sentences, strong voice and manners.
2. Allow failure
It's cute for little girls to be perfectionists. They preen, they fret, they refuse to try things at which they might fail.
We tell our girls that if they're not making mistakes, they're not trying hard enough. Everyone makes mistakes — especially the people who take risks and try new things. Failing, reflecting and trying again is part of developing.
My husband and I model failure by talking about and accepting our own mistakes, and we get our girls to own their failure, rather than rushing to the rescue.
For example, when our six year old accidentally wore dress uniform to school instead of sports uniform she was devastated. She wanted me to go home to get her sports uniform, but I refused.
When I picked her up from school at the end of the day she'd almost forgotten the whole drama. But hopefully she learned that the world doesn't end if you make a mistake and she doesn't need her parents to step in and save her.
3. Don't reward shyness
Being shy is one way girls get praise and attention. They hide behind their mothers' skirts, won't make eye contact, and refuse to speak for themselves. "Aww…isn't that cute," people say.
The trouble is, it's the wrong kind of attention. It rewards passivity and fearfulness. How do we expect girls to assert themselves when they're older if we don't encourage them to practice when they're young?
Rather than praising shyness, we tell our girls that refusing to make eye contact or speak to people is rude. As soon as our daughter was old enough, we asked her to order for herself in restaurants. If she didn't order, she didn't get. This was a very motivating way to get her used to conversing with strangers.
4. Don't accept helplessness or playing dumb
It's such a cliché. The girl — and sometime even grown woman — with the finger in the corner of her mouth, the swaying of hips and the declaration of incompetence. "I can't do it, I'm just a girl".
Girls learn helplessness from movies and toys such as Computer Engineering Barbie who needs some boys to come and code for her. They see it in stereotypes of women who can't change their own light bulbs, park their own cars or manage their finances.
When girls and women role play at being useless they come to believe it. This makes them ripe for manipulation, control and thinking that inequality is what they deserve.
As our daughters grow in competence, so too do our expectations of them. We try not to do anything for our girls that they can do for themselves.
5. Respond to requests not charms
Women can grow up to believe that the most effective way to get what they want is by using their charms: big eyes, cute smile, girly posture, dropping hints.
While it might work for a time, the power gained by feminine charms is fleeting. It's pretty hard for a forty year old to be cute. Even when it does work, it's the facsimilie of power: manipulating a situation to get what you want rather than simply asking for it.
We want our daughters to grow up believing that they are entitled to ask for what they want. The answer won't always be yes, but in our house, if they don't make a direct request the answer will almost certainly be no.
Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author of Thirty-Something And Over It: What happens when you wake up and don't want to go to work. Ever again. www.kaseyedwards.com