With Halloween just around the corner, those worthy souls who have decided to stay home and pass out candy are gearing up to have hordes of adorable children show up at their doors, demanding sugar. It will be most people’s knee-jerk reaction to compliment these kids on their costumes, which is only natural — after all, how can anyone not melt into a cooing puddle when a five year old dressed as a Velocirapter shows up at their door? But although compliments are totally appropriate responses to kids who’ve probably spent the whole summer planning their costumes, we should be careful about the compliments we give and how we give them — especially to young girls.
A number of writers, including Sharon Holbrook and Lisa Bloom, have suggested that we need to rethink how we compliment little girls. For many of us (and I’m including myself here), the default reaction when we’re faced with a small girl is to say, “You’re so pretty!” or make some other positive comment on her looks (“You have such gorgeous hair!” “You’re going to be so beautiful when you grow up!”). These types of compliments may seem innocuous and well-meaning at first, but over time, they add up to something else: A idea that girls’ worth resides in how they look, which is a message they’ll keep hearing throughout their adult lives, from the media, the people around them, and our culture in general. When girls earn praise solely based on their appearance, they also learn that their value lies beyond their control, that their naturally lush eyelashes or adorable dimples matter more than their intelligence or creativity.
I don’t believe that you should never tell a girl she’s beautiful, or that it’s wrong to tell a girl proudly dressed as a princess that she’s a very pretty princess indeed. But beauty shouldn’t be the only barometer of feminine value, and, during Halloween, being pretty shouldn’t be the only sign of a successful costume. Because Halloween costumes are primarily visual, it can be a bit tricky ("trick-or-treaty"?) at first to compliment costumes without immediately falling back to remarks about beauty. But it’s worth the effort to be more creative in our praise; in doing so, we encourage girls to exercise their own creativity in their costumes in the future.
Keep reading for some simple ways that you can compliment little girls on their Halloween finery and empower them at the same time. Obviously not all of these compliments will work for every costume (If you say “OMG, you’re so scary!” to a girl dressed as a kitten, she might not take it well), but the general point is to find ways to compliment girls on their clever disguises without always having to resort to comments about their beauty. And, of course, these compliments work just as well for boys — because all kids, regardless of gender, like to hear that they are creative and interesting and that their costumes are awesome.
1. “Wow, you make a terrifying monster! That is so great!”
When we only compliment girls on their beauty, we unintentionally make the point that they should try to be pretty all the time. If a little girl is wearing a costume that isn’t supposed to be pretty — like a scary costume or a funny costume — let her know that she did a good job at being scary or funny, and that it’s great for her to explore those aspects of herself, too.
2. “I love that your dress is purple — That’s my favorite color!”
Too often when we give compliments (to kids or adults), we default to generalizations like “You look great.” By focusing on something specific, we demonstrate that we’re really paying attention to the person we’re complimenting. Try to focus on elements that the girl may have had a part in — like the color of her outfit — rather than things she can’t control, like the curliness of her hair or the color of her eyes.
3. “You must be so proud of your costume! It looks like you put a lot of work into it!”
Instead of focusing solely on the child’s appearance, praise the effort that must have gone into the costume. Doing so will let her know that her hard work is worth more than how she looks.
4. “Princess Leia is my favorite, too! You’ve recreated her hair buns perfectly!”
It’s a simple move to change a compliment from being about beauty to being about skill. For example, if you’ve got a tiny Princess Leia in front of you, instead of saying “You have beautiful hair,” you can compliment her for how accurately she’s recreated Leia’s hairstyle.
5. “Your costume is so creative!”
By praising a costume’s creativity, you’re telling the child that creativity is something that should be valued. (This compliment is also helpful if you’re not sure what, exactly, the costume is supposed to be. Follow up with “I’d love for you to tell me more about it!” to solve the mystery.)
6. “You look like you could save the world/do amazing ballet/go to the moon!”
Rather than focusing on a costumed child’s beauty, take a moment to admire her abilities — even if they’re imagined. Doing so encourages her to keep imagining different futures and different ways of being.
7. “I love that you decided to be a triceratops! That’s my favorite dinosaur!”
By praising the subject of a little girl’s costume, whether that it's a dinosaur, a fairy princess, or zombie, you’re complimenting her on a choice that she made. It’s a gentle way of affirming that she has the agency to make decisions for herself.
8. “I love your costume! Will you tell me more about it?”
One of the best ways to make kids feel empowered is to be genuinely interested in what they have to say. So, for Halloween, go beyond “You look beautiftul” to ask questions like, “How did you come up with your costume?”, “Did you help make it?”, “What’s your favorite thing about Belle/Iron Man/Ghosts/[whatever the costume is]?” By really listening to the response, you show a kid that you value his or her point of view.