3 Alternatives to Calling a Young Girl ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Princess’

Gender roles start early, with masculine and feminine toys, terms of endearment, and the way we respond to young girls’ and boys’ displays of emotion. Most of us experienced these differences as a matter of course when we were young, and it would be easy enough to pass them on. But a lot of our expectations around gender-specific behavior are not good for either boys or girls.

The expectation that boys learn not to cry and to hold their emotions in might be responsible for the higher rates of suicide in males in later life, and the ideas we put into girls’ heads about being taken care of (princess) or focusing on her appearance (beautiful) is undoubtedly connected to the tendency for girls to become disenchanted with STEM subjects, the persistent pay gap, and perhaps the tendency for some men to think a woman is theirs for the taking.

So, if you want to be more thoughtful and purposeful in the way you address young girls, what are some better terms you can use:

Her Name

Yeah, that’s a bit obvious, isn’t it, but that’s what names are for, after all, and it’s a good, safe choice. If you’re an adult around young people, maybe nieces and nephews, your own children, maybe you’re a teacher or early childhood educator or another person working with young people, you can’t go wrong with the person’s actual given name (or their preferred variation on it).

Some like to treat younger people like adults by using Mr. or Ms. or Miss and their last name. While it is unfortunate we don’t have a gender-neutral version of these titles, it does give you the opportunity to have a conversation about whether she prefers Ms. or miss (I usually default to Ms. unless corrected).

My Dear or Other Terms of Endearment, If…

If this is a young person you are close to and you don’t differentiate between the way you frame the boys and girls. There’s nothing wrong with terms of endearment that mean exactly that: you are dear to me. You should absolutely give young family members and students an indication that they are loved for who they are.

That means, though, that boys shouldn’t get rough-and-tumble names referencing physical abilities while girls get sweet names referencing physical cuteness. Terms of endearment shouldn’t be about physical appearance but what’s in their hearts. Thus, boys can be called honey or sweetie too, including by their dads and uncles. It doesn’t have to be buddy, scout, or chief, while girls get the clear signal that their role is different.

Attitude and Behavior Words

There’s been some educational research on what motivates children extrinsically versus intrinsically. Complimenting a child by applying a descriptor such as smart or creative can actually have a demotivating effect, as it suggests that our talents and abilities are intrinsic and immutable. It can cause them to get frustrated whenever they struggle in the face of a challenge, thinking “I guess I’m not smart/athletic after all,” and giving up. Kids with a growth mindset, the belief they can improve in anything with effort, end up doing just that.

So, to encourage this way of thinking about skills and ability, better to compliment a child on their attitudes and behavior. Girls in particular need encouragement in math, science, and sports to counteract the discouragement they may receive from male peers and some of their teachers (of either gender). So emphasize how impressed you are with her curiosity, her hard work and studying, her persistence, and her patience. “Wow, you sure are improving with your counting. It’s great how hard you have worked to get better,” and “Great effort in soccer practice! You were totally focused!”

You may think terms like smartiepants, little genius, or a variation of the name of a famous person they aspire to be like is a good way to encourage a young girl, but these kinds of labels should be used sparingly. Less obvious appellations like “study buddy,” “curious cat,” or “my good attitude girl” might have more of a positive effect in the long-term than you might think.

Photo credit: Steve Evans

176 comments

John B
John B5 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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DAVID fleming
DAVID f14 days ago

Thanks

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Paola S
Paola S15 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Elaine W
Elaine W16 days ago

Good ideas.

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Winn A
Winn A18 days ago

Thanks

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Winn A
Winn A18 days ago

Noted

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Hannah K
Hannah K18 days ago

thank you

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Lindsay K
Lindsay K18 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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heather g
heather g19 days ago

Kids flourish with encouragement and kind words

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Janet B
Janet B19 days ago

Thanks

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