I was driving Ruby, who is 7, to school on her own yesterday and she asked me out of the blue, “Do I look pretty?”

And there it was. That thing that comes up for girls from the time they are toddlers. The thing that, as a mother, I want to oppose from the ground up. “Do I look pretty?”

From the time girls are born and they grow, people remark on their looks. “You are SO CUTE! You are pretty!” They mean it as a kindness, a way of connecting. Boys get that kind of commentary less often once they are out of baby and toddler-land and as they grow, it drops off precipitously. The comments that Noah gets about being cute at age 8 I can count on one hand. He does get “handsome” but what he receives most often is, “Look at you, you are getting so BIG! You are tall! You are a strong guy!”

Very different messages.

When Ruby was 4, she still had a delightful little kid belly that I adored. She had not yet moved into her “girl” look she has now. For me, it represented holding onto a tiny bit of her toddlerhood. One day she asked me, “Am I fat, Momma? My tummy looks fat.” My heart cracked as I told her she was beautiful and would always be beautiful, just as she was. That “fat” was a word we didn’t use because it usually was meant to be mean. That a person’s size was never how we judged them.

She was 4.

SO back to the “pretty” question. I looked at her and said, “Why do you want to be pretty?” and she honestly said, “I don’t know.”

And I said this: “Pretty is not an achievement. Pretty is just a word that people use to describe people they think look nice or someone who looks in a way that is familiar to them. It doesn’t mean anything. It is someone’s opinion of someone else’s outside.”

I continued, “To me, what is important is what is on the INSIDE of us. I think things like this are important: I am kind. I am smart. I am strong.”

And then we just started chanting: “KIND!!! SMART!!! STRONG!!! KIND!!! SMART!!! STRONG!!!! KIND!!! SMART!!! STRONG!!!” as we made our way to school.

It is in these moments I realize that parenting well, doing our best to create a foundation of confidence and love and kindness in our children, is one of the most important types of activism in which we can engage.

It is long view activism. It is planning for a better future by what we create together in this moment, who we allow our children to become.

This piece was originally published at Becoming Undomesticated 

Lea Ann Mallett

Lea Ann Mallett is a wild woman, midlife mama, activist, writer and joy warrior. After sixteen years of life as executive director of two nonprofits, she stepped out of that world to spend more time with her kids and with her writing. She writes about the beauty of family life in the wilds of suburbia in her blog Becoming Undomesticated. She is currently writing a book on the evolution of her activism over her thirty years in the environmental and social justice movements.