Seven things adults can say to a young girl instead of ‘I love your dress’

When ECA worked on the Start Early. Respectful relationships for life project, aimed at fostering relationship skills in very young children, educators commented on how often adults—educators, family, neighbours and friends—will comment on a girl’s dress when there are so many other things to talk about. Even with the best intentions, one educator said it is easy to make a reflexive comment. When it is an unusually busy day, the group of children is out of sorts—or more hectic than usual—and a girl in a pretty dress walks in, it is easy to fall back into habits that your intentional, best-practice educator self would never say. For International Women’s Day, here are seven other ways to respond to a young girl rather than saying, ‘Don’t you look pretty’.

  1. Start a conversation about something the child is doing—observe what the child is interested in and open a conversation from there. Try: ‘I see you are enjoying that picture/chapter book. Those illustrations are beautiful, which do you prefer?’ or, ‘Tell me what’s happening in the story so far’.
  2. Comment about something going on around you—look for opportunities to comment rather than ask a question. Instead of commenting on the dress or saying you look pretty, try: ‘I like how you think!’
  3. Tap into a feeling—‘What do you feel proud of doing this week?’ or, ‘I saw someone today who was very happy because …’
  4. Share something about yourself—good conversations are mutual. Start with, ‘I love playing skipping games / board games / riding bikes with friends, we sometimes … What kinds of games do you enjoy with your friends?’
  5. Find alternative questions—to avoid the usual ‘don’t you look pretty’ statements, asking alternative questions can be helpful. If you do want to start conversations with questions, try some of these: ‘What book are you reading at the moment?’ or, ‘What’s your favourite book/story?’
  6. Use questions to broaden the conversation—to avoid the usual ‘don’t you look pretty’ statements, try a question to steer the conversation into a different territory. Young children can sometimes find questions difficult to deal with, especially a series of questions from adults. You can help soften the questions by combining them with observations, pausing to share an activity, or allowing time for answers and sharing your observations. All of these can help open conversations in new directions, rather than repeat the same patterns. Some useful questions can be: ‘What is your favourite picture book—mine is …?’, ‘I love this cartoon show—is X your favourite cartoon character?’, ‘If you could be any superhero, who would you be?’, ‘What is your favourite food?’ or, ‘What’s your super power?’
  7. Try a new angle on an old theme—investigate. Wonder aloud about how the dress was made, how far it might have travelled! Who stitched it? What kind of fabric it is made of and where did it come from.

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Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

4 thoughts on “Seven things adults can say to a young girl instead of ‘I love your dress’”

    Yarrow Andrew says:

    A perfect blogpost for International Women’s Day. Practical, yet shaking the foundations of the (gendered) world. Great!

    Clare McHugh says:

    Thanks Andrew. Appreciate the feedback.

    Heidi says:

    First encounters are sometimes awkward, children and adults may feel timid. Rather than focusing on attire at all , we could just express our joy of seeing that person that day. “Mary, I’m so glad to see you” or “Mary, I’m happy you made it to school today, we have do much to learn”

    Clare McHugh says:

    Exactly Heidi. It’s often our own initial awkwardness that triggers unthinking and unoriginal responses. I like the constructive alternatives you suggest.

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