Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Encouraging Young Women

There are a couple of recent blog posts that have resonated with me. They are addressing the problems with how some preacher/pastors talk about their wives in public. Particularly, they address the tendency to make "sexy" compliments in a public setting, and how this ultimately is a cheapening of something precious. I don't know if I can pinpoint the beginning of the trend, but it surely has something to do with Ricky Bobby's memorable prayer in Talladega Nights where he thanks God for his "Red hot smokin' wife, Carly, who is a stone cold fox." (Quoting Will Ferrell movies is an easy way to try to make yourself appear conversant in pop culture.)

I've heard a few similar comments in public settings, and have always been uncomfortable with them. I personally have an agreement with my wife--which I honor--that I will never talk about her or tell stories about her from the pulpit without her full approval. I think it has gone a long way in helping her feel comfortable with me preaching, not fearing that she'll have to get embarrassed in front of a few hundred people. (Not that I might not embarrass her on my own, but it won't be because I'm telling them stuff about her that she doesn't want them to know.)

There are a lot of good perspectives offered on this issue both here and here.

As one who works a lot with young adults, including teen girls, I've spent a fair amount of time over the last few years trying to think about what kinds of compliments most help young women to feel loved, encouraged, and empowered. Here are my thoughts about how to compliment young women. As I've never been a young woman myself, I would certainly welcome your comments and perspectives on this one.

1. Honesty over Flattery
To begin with, I simply don't go for hyperbole or false assertions. I don't tell them anything that I don't sincerely mean. If they failed, I won't try to imply they succeeded, though I can certainly appreciate their sincere effort. Also, I try to say things in a way that I would say them in any setting. I want for my words to them to be something that I'd be glad for their parents to hear as well, if I were quoted verbatim. Keep your words honest and pure.

2. Spoken over Assumed
Even though one has to be careful about interactions with younger members of the opposite gender these days, it is crucial to say the good things that need to be said. As often as I have a window to offer a genuine compliment (particularly of a type described below), I make it a point to do so. Don't miss an opportunity to build up young people. Don't just assume that because everyone else observes something good about them, they know what people are thinking. Young people are incredibly concerned with how people perceive them.

3. Praise Effort over Intrinsic Qualities
We don't expect our children to have perfect track records in any part of their life. We need to give them room to try things, and even room to fail. But rather than praising something that they can't change, or didn't work for ("You have beautiful blue eyes"), I look for things to praise that show courage, work, and resolve on their part. "I know it was hard for you to hold your tongue about that, but you showed great character. I saw that, and I'm proud of you." "I like the way you try to make Facebook posts that honor God and say positive things." "I know you were scared to try that, but you did your best, and I know it will make it even easier for you to have courage the next time, too."

We want our compliments to help them value what is most valuable. If what we want is for them to be dedicated Christians who show strong moral character, why would we spend all our compliments just talking about how pretty they are? If they seek your approval--and they do--be sure you verbalize positive things about what you most want for them. Not that you can't compliment their outfit, but don't neglect the weightier matters.

4. Self-expressed over Externally-expressed
The way you word your compliments can make a big difference. A lot of people try hard to pay compliments to kids, such as, "You're so smart!" or "You're so pretty!" The downside of things expressed this way is that the opinion expressed is purely an external one. These are words immediately appreciated, but also quickly forgotten when self-doubt sets in. Instead of just telling them what you perceive to be their qualities, try to get them to verbalize their own good qualities. So if they succeed at something you know they were worried about, you can say something like this:
"So I hear that you aced that test!" "Yeah..."
"Now if I remember, you were worried about that one?" "Yeah..."
"But you spent a lot of time preparing, and you did great! What did you feel like when you got your test back?"
"I felt like..._______"
"So you had a hard test you were worried about, but you ended up acing it...what does that tell you about yourself?"
"Maybe I'm smarter than I thought I was," or "If I work really hard, I can do it."

Many of the young people I worry about most are the ones who use a lot of negative language about themselves. "I'm fat." "I'm dumb." "I'm such an idiot." "I always screw everything up."
They will listen to their own opinion much more clearly than they will to anyone else's. It is important to help them learn to compliment themselves when they do well, and to believe positive things about their own capabilities.

To be a Christian is to be in the minority, and we need young people with a strong sense of Christian identity and moral courage that doesn't depend on peer approval. Women are and have always been such an important part of the Kingdom of God. Their value to us runs so much deeper than how they look. Let's make sure we help them to know it.

What kinds of compliments have stuck with you over the years?
What kinds of encouragement has helped you most?


  1. Good thoughts Mark.

    Lately I have read several blog posts, articles and books that speak to this subject. One thing that has resonated with me is the importance of asking girls (boys would benefit from this too) about tangible things in their lives like what books have they read instead of focusing on their looks.

    I have also read a lot about the importance of praising effort instead of natural abilities or looks. Whether talking about school work or athletics, it is better for children to understand that their effort is really important.

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