Children (and adults!) love receiving compliments—a meaningful comment from someone can make you feel seen, special, and appreciated. Giving a child a compliment is one of the many ways caregivers build a solid relationship foundation and boost self-esteem. However, making comments or paying compliments on a child’s physical appearance or assumed gender identity can pin extra value on how they look, rather than on qualities they can control, such as their decisions or initiative.
While it is natural for young children to categorize and define themselves by physical characteristics, try to focus your comments on your child’s feelings, effort, or actions. Give a compliment about a characteristic you want to foster in children, such as perseverance, kindness, or personal expression. Examples include:
- “You really thought about how to climb that play structure and you kept trying until you did it.”
- “Riley was sad. You helped fix the block tower. Thank you.”
- “I noticed that you asked your friends to join you when they felt left out. That was very kind.”
Other Language That De-Emphasizes Gender
- Instead of: “Big boys don’t cry!”
- Say: “I can see you’re upset. It’s OK to feel sad. Can you tell me about it?”
- Instead of: “You’re such a good boy/girl!”
- Say: “I’m so impressed with how you picked up all your crayons! Thank you.”
Another scenario where caregivers often offer appearance-based comments is when a child dresses for the day in something that does not conform to gender norms. If this makes you feel uncomfortable, remember that kids’ understanding of gender (like all areas of early development) grows through play and experimentation! Check in with your feelings of discomfort and remember that this is a wonderful opportunity to allow your child to feel loved and respected. A supportive reaction from you will help your child develop a sense of self-worth and confidence that is independent from their appearance and assigned sex.
If you feel the need to address a child’s appearance, congratulate them on their creativity or engage their imagination instead of commenting on how they look.
- Instead of: “That dress makes you look like a beautiful princess!”
- Say: “That dress makes you look powerful. What adventure will you have while wearing it?”
- Instead of: “You look so handsome/pretty today!”
- Say: “The color/pattern of your dress/pants/shoes, etc. are so great! How did you decide that you were going to wear that today?”
Delivering praise by choosing your words carefully, using a warm nurturing tone, and getting down on your child’s level are all ways you can increase connection and show your child you are really interested in how they feel and who they are. This takes practice and time, but delivering these kinds of compliments will help increase the connection and attachment between you and your child in a way that shows love and support, independent of gender or physical appearance.
More on Supporting Children
- Learn more about gender development and stereotypes and ways you can support exploration at home.
- We’re sharing tips for raising children who identify as girls.
- Discover the benefits of practicing positive parenting and find examples for using encouragement instead of praise.
I’m Claire, a Bright Horizons employee and a mom of three school-aged kids. I have spent years as an early childhood educator and researcher, and also as a writer, chronicling the ups and downs of being a mom. I believe that writing honestly about parenthood is the best way to celebrate the joys and normalize the challenges we all encounter. I live in MA and in my spare time I enjoy hiking with my dog and reading.