Do you tell your daughter how beautiful she looks in her new party dress or how handsome your son is in his favourite super hero outfit? You had better stop says the UK's women's minister, Jo Swinson, who thinks parents who tell their children they are beautiful risk sending the message that looks are the most important thing for success in life.
Placing too much emphasis on appearance can lead to body confidence issues later on, Swinson has warned. Instead of telling children they are beautiful, she thinks parents should compliment them on their intelligence or for skills such as doing a jigsaw or being curious.
Ms Swinson, 33, who does not have children, told the UK's Daily Telegraph: "I know as an aunt, you fall into the trap of turning to your niece and saying, 'You look beautiful' — because of course all children do look beautiful — but if the message they get is that is what's important and that is what gets praise, then that's not necessarily the most positive message you want them to hear."
Christine Morgan, chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, which supports those affected by eating disorders and negative body image, disagrees with Swinson's advice. "I think it is a step too far to say to parents you shouldn't be calling your children beautiful because it is putting too much emphasis on their appearance. I think a parent saying to a child 'you're beautiful' is subjective, it is absolutely not going on just what a child looks like. They are saying 'I love you, you are a beautiful person'. I think every parent who has called their child beautiful means that. That's just positive reinforcement."
Morgan does think however that the underlying premise of Swinson's message is sensible as a factor in developing resilience in children at a time when body dissatisfaction is the top personal concern for young girls in Australia. "I think what she was trying to say was 'parents can you please concentrate more on who your children are and their innate qualities rather than placing too much importance on their physical appearance'."
"That's a great way to bring up your child. It's a great way to say that someone's value is who they are, not what they look like. I totally agree with that. Does that equate to not telling your child that he or she is beautiful? I don't think so."
Claire Trethewey, 28, a nutritionist from Melbourne, says as a child she was slightly overweight, had braces and wore glasses, which might have affected her self-esteem were it not for her mother telling her how beautiful she was. "When I was growing up, I'd say 'that girl is skinnier than me or she has a boyfriend' and mum would always say 'You are beautiful. Look at your amazing legs or you've got a beautiful smile' and that was really important to me. I was a bit overweight but it never really fazed me. I didn't get caught up with the girls who were trying to lose weight or those that compared how little they ate. I don't know how many other girls can say that?"
Sydney-based clinical psychologist, Louise Adams, an expert on body image issues, says Swinson's advice is very encouraging. As a mother of two young girls, she tries to balance her comments in front of her children, "so they realise that they are amazing for a whole variety of reasons. I avoid speaking badly about my body or my appearance, and I discourage the girls from making disparaging remarks about what other people look like."
"Adulation of physical appearance above all else is a recipe for disaster for girls and women," she adds. "Praising girls and women for behaviours and interests outside physical appearance can help address the imbalance and give us a better chance of valuing ourselves for a number of reasons, not just one."
If you need help or support for an eating disorder or body image issue, please call Butterfly 1800 334 673 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org