Why do people insist that girls smile all the time?

It’s a rainy summer morning and I’m ushering a toddler and baby into daycare. The almost 3-yr-old wants to jump in the puddles. She’s stalling; she had an accident in the car and doesn’t want to change out of her wet pants. Perhaps she’s embarrassed. Despite this, when we walk through the front door, she’s smiling. The daycare director says, “I’m so proud of you, you’re in a good mood today!”

And just like that, I’m furious. Not at the toddler who won’t comply, but at the director who is…what? What is it, specifically, that has my mama bear instincts on high alert? As I drive to work, I consider this: I don’t think that a smile should be praised, and I also don’t think that a frown should be admonished. I can’t quite put my finger on why this bothers me, except that I’m aware that girls are often asked to smile and be pleasant – much more so than little boys.

This isn’t the first daycare comment to catch my attention. “At least you have one happy child,” the director coos at my always-smiling infant. “But what about the other, within earshot?” I think. I find myself asking, for the hundredth time since my children started at this center, is it harmful to call a child difficult or sad? How does this affect her self-esteem?

Seventy-four percent of girls say they are under pressure to please everyone and 98 percent of girls feel there is an immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way, according to statistics published by Heart of Leadership, an organization focused on helping teen girls and women live to their full potential.

Before I open the door to the toddler’ classroom, I attempt to build her up with a series of positive phrases: “You are special. I love you very much. You can be anything you want to be.”

I don’t want her to feel less valuable because she doesn’t feel like smiling. I also don’t want her to feel worse on the days when she already feels bad. I want her to be accepted exactly the way she is. Throughout her life, and especially in adolescence, a young girl will often struggle with her mood. I suppose from my own experience, I know the guilt of feeling like I’m letting other people down when I’m not outwardly happy.

Her value isn’t how she makes anyone else feel, it’s how she feels about herself. Most of all, I want her to learn how to love herself.

Here are some thoughts to consider if you have a child who is moody:

Words matter

I appreciate this Indy Star article about telling women to smile. Why do we have to be happy all the time? The writer, Leslie Bailey, credits a friends’ wisdom, “If you would like a woman to smile, give her a compliment. Not a command.” She talks about an art exhibit aimed at highlighting this issue as a form harassment – why must females always be a source of pleasure?

Please don’t expect constant entertainment from my daughter at her young age. She’s a toddler. She has a mess of emotions. She is trying to exert her own force of personality in a world where she has no control and her mother is always running off to work. Please extend a little patience.

It’s ok to be sad sometimes

Bailey wrote, “There’s not much in life that we can control. But smiling? Male or female, let’s leave each other to do it on our own terms.”

It’s important to think about how we react to children’s emotions. PBS Kids’ parenting page recommends avoiding minimizing or talking children out of their feelings. “Acknowledging a child’s strong feelings opens the door to helping her learn how to cope with them. ‘You are sad Joey has to leave. You love playing with him.  Let’s go to the window to wave goodbye and make a plan to see him again soon.’”

And don’t forget this classic Daniel Tiger episode, It’s ok to feel sad.

 Find ways to make mornings happier

Today’s Parent offers 9 ways to deal with your kid’s grumpy mornings. Make sure she’s getting enough sleep, ease her out of bed, and consider whether there are challenges at school. Look to the source of your child’s mood. There may be simple changes you can make to her morning routine.

When I was on a business trip recently, my parents and the daycare director both found that the toddler did much better when she came in later (because she slept longer). That’s not possible to continue with my work schedule, but it did reinforce the importance of an early bedtime.

Everyday habits that build long-term happiness

I highlighted tips from Shawn Achor, happiness guru, in a previous post on fostering happiness: Simple activities like spending 15 minutes on exercise, or 2 minutes focused on helping others, can elevate mood – and this can be done at any age. In fact, these are great habits to start young.

What to do if you think your daughter is depressed

Is your daughter moody, or is she depressed? If you’re wondering, consider an expert opinion.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive; maybe my toddler is overly sensitive. Neither of us respond well to someone saying, “Why aren’t you smiling?” Or, “Why are you unhappy?”

As a grown-up, I find solace in the adage, “The more you point out someone else’s flaws, the more you emphasize your own.” Until my kiddos are old enough to see this for themselves, I’ll do my best to guide them.

About Shelley Groh

Shelley Groh is mom to two girls, a precocious 2-year-old and a new baby (personality yet to be discovered). As director of communications for a Fortune 100 company, she develops strategic communications plans to build consumer brands and coaches executives to live into their personal brands. Shelley earned a master’s degree in Communications Management from Syracuse University and bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from Winona State University. In her free time, when she’s not writing content for websites, Shelley enjoys running, boating, and brunching. She also believes in supporting organizations that provide opportunities to underserved youth; her favorites include Junior Achievement, Step Up, and Florence Crittenton.

View all posts by Shelley Groh