The Unwritten Social Rules for Girls: Compliments, Comparing and Self-Esteem

Posted February 9, 2012 by

Photo of barbaragreenberg

Why, I would like to know, do we teach our teen daughters to be demure and to minimize compliments? When did we make a collective decision to teach them about the unwritten social rule that they must never admit to liking their bodies? When did we decide to teach them to hide their good grades so they are not seen as too smart, too aggressive, bragging, or too competitive? Why, if they have a blemish, do they need to point it out to their friends immediately?

Do we teach our teenage sons to also be modest, self-conscious, and to complain constantly about their bodies? Why haven’t we been telling them to be humble and to minimize their accomplishments? Why do we smile when boys high-five each other about a job well done while we would probably be embarrassed if we saw our daughters high-five each other about being in great shape.

(And please don’t say that you’re not a member of this group of parents. You most certainly are, because we all are.)

I watch grown men celebrate each others accomplishments while I often see adult women gossiping about a peer who is successful. And, yes, some women do have a very hard time rooting for one another. I have seen this in action repeatedly. You call a good friend to share your joy only to be met with silence at the other end of the phone. Women can be woefully inept at feeling joy for one another. Of course, there are exceptions, but please admit that our unwritten teen social rules turn out some pretty competitive women.

So how can we begin to change things? Here are my tips for parents of girls:

1. Praise them not only about their looks but for their effort. “Try you look very fancy!” or “I like the way you put your outfit together!” Instead of “You look gorgeous.” This puts the focus on their effort.

2. Praise them not only about how their body looks, but about how it functions. Try “You’re very strong!” instead of “You have such nice legs.”

3. Model being happy for other women. Try “I am so proud of my friend,” rather than “Why does she have such good luck?” There’s enough good fortune to go around for everyone.

4. Teach them to celebrate their friends’ successes and to act as if is a joint success. Have them send congratulatory cards, plan a party, or get involved in some other lovely gesture.

5. Teach them to focus not only on comparing and evaluating each other and themselves, but to enjoy their own and their friends’ company.

Do you have other ideas? I’d love to hear them.


Barbara is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of adolescents and their well-intentioned but exhausted parents. She is the co-author of Teenage as a Second Language-A Parents Guide to Becoming Bilingual with Jennifer Powell-Lunder PsyD and the co-creator of the website

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