Pretty Princesses Produce Problems

Perhaps I was too generous in my suggestion that “The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them.”

As reported in Not so pretty: Researchers find that Disney princesses are really damaging girls’ self esteem, girls (average age 5 years) who played with princess toys demonstrated the following tendencies a year later:

  • wanted to look like princesses
  • showed less confidence
  • adopted “girly” stereotypes
  • avoided getting dirty, exploring or playing “non-feminine” games
  • were more likely to express the belief that being girls means they’ll have different opportunities and goals in life”

Especially problematic, “grown women who self-identied as princesses’ gave up more easily on a challenging task, were less likely to want to work, and were more focused on supercial qualities.”


Available here:
Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A. and Birkbeck, V. (2016), Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.12569

Admire actions above appearance

Where I ended in “The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them” stopped short of describing how I might interact with a charming little girl (whether in a pretty pink princess outfit or not):

So the next time I see your daughter, please understand if I don’t immediately comment on her adorable outfit. I’m probably debating whether to reinforce her perspective-taking, self-regulation, or cognitive flexibility.

Thankfully, Lisa Bloom (author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World) shares a lively account of how she would do exactly that in her essay, “How to Talk to Little Girls.” Quite simply, here are her guiding suggestions:

Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? …ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? … Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.

From positive self-esteem to positive other-esteem and learning

Dealing with differences needs to be encouraged gently, whether with ideas or with people.

As described in “People with Low Self-Esteem Show More Signs of Prejudice”[1]:

When people are feeling bad about themselves, they’re more likely to show bias against people who are different. …People who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree, but not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings.

The connection between low self-esteem and negative expectations reminds me of related research on the impact of a value-affirming writing exercise in improving the academic performance of minority students:

From “Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students”[2]:

In 2007, [Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado] showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students.

After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

And from 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics[3]:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. …

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [this writing exercise] to close the gap between male and female performance. … With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

Helping people feel better about themselves seems like an obvious, “everybody-wins” approach to improving education, social relations, and accepting different ideas.


[1] T. J. Allen, J. W. Sherman. Ego Threat and Intergroup Bias: A Test of Motivated-Activation Versus Self-Regulatory Accounts. Psychological Science, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611399291

[2] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1170769

[3] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G.L., & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1195996

The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them

There’s nothing wrong with pink. It’s a perfectly fine color. The problem is its arbitrary association with gender[1], to the point where it becomes a code for what girls and boys are “supposed to” like and dislike, and prevents them from judging for themselves what they like based on any dimension other than color.

Nor would I necessarily take issue with princess fantasies, on the grounds that fantasizing oneself as royalty, a dragon-slayer, or a time-traveler can all be healthy exercises in one’s imagination. The deeper problem is that wanting to be a princess is too often about wanting to be pretty, pampered, and protected. To the extent that it’s about something in one’s control, becoming a princess is about being able to marry a prince. I’m not too keen on encouraging young girls to define themselves or build dreams around their marriage prospects. I think the key question to ask girls playing at being princesses is, “What will you do when you’re a princess?”

What does a girl do when she’s a pretty pink princess? What does she do to become one?

Peggy Orenstein and others have dissected the dangers of wanting to be pretty along the lines of promoting consumerism, narcissism, eating disorders, and premature sexualization of girls. At its simplest, I see the ideal of “being valued for what you do and not how you look” as just another expression of the importance of believing that effort and controllable behaviors matter more than intelligence, talent, or looks. I won’t dispute the value of attractiveness or positive self-presentation in influencing success or self-esteem; the issue is that improving one’s appearance is more limited in capacity than improving one’s skills[2] and ultimately more limited in impact. One can only be so average (noting that more average faces are more beautiful), but one can always be more capable.

I also worry about encouraging children to seek some status or reward simply for its own sake. The pleasures of being pretty go beyond ornamenting someone else’s world and receiving an extra boost in attention. Attractiveness shouldn’t be an end in itself, but a stepping-stone toward further positive outcomes—whether building confidence to pursue ambitious goals, landing a CEO or political position where leadership can make a difference, or developing interpersonal skills that help bring others together. Otherwise it’s little more than an uncashed lottery ticket, devoid of real appreciation.

For me, the bottom line is about helping all children to pursue goals which they can control and which will help them develop. I want them to choose games and activities based on how interesting or worthwhile they seem, not some marketing message that arbitrarily dictates preferences around colors and images[3]. I want them to actively create their own questions and ambitions, explore the world, and forge paths toward fulfilling those desires. I want them to focus on boosting what they know and can do, not what they have and how they look, to better support them in tackling future challenges.

So the next time I see your daughter, please understand if I don’t immediately comment on her adorable outfit. I’m probably debating whether to reinforce her perspective-taking, self-regulation, or cognitive flexibility.


[1] LoBue, V., & DeLoache, J.S. (2011). Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences. To appear in British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

See also:
Chiu, S.W., Gervan, S., Fairbrother, C., Johnson, L.L, Owen-Anderson, A.F.H., Bradley, S.J., & Zucker, K.J. (2006). Sex-dimorphic color preference in children with gender identity disorder: A comparison in clinical and community controls. Sex Roles, 55, 385-395.

[2] There’s a phrase (I thought) I once heard, about the unrealistic yet persistent modern belief in “the infinite perfectibility of the human body” and its application to girls’ striving to be thin and beautiful. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track it down; if you know its source, please send it along!

[3] I’m not interested in pandering to stereotype with boy-targeted car imagery or girl-targeted pink frills, whether for “good causes” or for some toy company’s profit. Even if topics like online shopping and cosmetic surgery interest more girls in statistics, I would still advocate finding more neutral problem contexts and framing for both boys and girls.

From: Sylvie Kerger, Romain Martin, Martin Brunner. How can we enhance girls’ interest in scientific topics? British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.2011.02019.x

Other research-based commentary on “tiger parenting”

For what I hope will be my last post on the subject, I wanted to share some gems I’ve found from my online meanderings following link after link on Amy Chua’s views on parenting. These all draw from relevant research to critique specific practices rather than an imprecise “parenting style.”

1. In this edited interview transcript with Scientific American, Temple University developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg reviews the literature on many of the specific practices Chua describes, pointing out both the good and the bad. On his “good” list are high expectations, parental involvement, and positive feedback for genuine accomplishment (but not cultivating false self-esteem). On his “bad” list are excessive punishment, being overly restrictive, and squelching autonomy (characteristics of authoritarian rather than authoritative parenting). He further questions Chua’s views on desirable goals for her children and highlights the value of unstructured play for children’s development. Although he mentions cultural differences in parenting and acknowledges that Americans might misperceive Chinese parenting as being more authoritarian than it really is, he doesn’t analyze cultural influences in much depth here.

2. On Parenting Science, Gwen Dewar (an interdisciplinary social scientist whose background also includes psychology) provides a fuller analysis on both the authoritarian / authoritative parenting style dimension and the cultural differences between Chinese and American parenting. Like Steinberg and others, she too affirms the importance of believing in effort over innate ability, noting that this characterizes Chinese more than American values. Ironically, she includes more detail than Steinberg on his own research, describing the potential for positive peer pressure among Chinese-American youth, whose peers encourage them to achieve rather than rejecting them for geekiness. Most thankfully, she highlights that the positive aspects of traditional Chinese parenting can be separated from undesirable authoritarian practices.

3. Finally, on the NY Times Freakonomics blog, Yale professor of law and economics Ian Ayres (who acknowledges being a friend and colleague of Amy Chua’s) delves into the cognitive benefits of some of these parenting practices, rather than their developmental or cultural consequences. While I’m disappointed that he discusses the benefits of “tiger parenting” without strong caveats against its harms (or an acknowledgment that they can be separated), I particularly appreciated his economic analysis of the attitudes and behaviors that may result.

One virtue Ayres extols is delayed gratification, which he quantifies as “the intertemporal marginal rate of substitution, the willingness to forego current consumption in order to consume more in the future.” It’s another lens on the importance of grit, perseverance, and conscientiousness in enduring challenges while pursuing distant goals. He points out research indicating that these skills may be a stronger predictor of future success than intelligence (as measured by IQ).

(Although Ayres didn’t mention it, this further validates Dweck’s research on the importance of believing that effort matters more than innate ability in determining success.)

He also cites Ericsson’s research on the amount of effort necessary to develop expertise. Despite believing that such discipline is likely to transfer over to other pursuits, he admits that he would probably choose skills with more immediate benefits:

My personal bias is in guiding my children toward endeavors (like learning statistics or US History or corporate finance or Python — all subjects of daddy school) that I think are likely to pay higher direct adult dividends than music or sport skills that atrophy in adulthood.

Inclined though I am to agree with him, I wonder how effective such pursuits are as targets for kids to develop discipline and expertise. Aside from the value of music and sports in themselves, they also carry salient milestones—some culturally derived (such as soccer tournaments and numbered Suzuki-method books), but others perceptually evident—that help children self-assess progress. Computer programming has concrete markers of success in getting a program to produce the desired output, but growth in using analytical tools such as statistics is a bit harder for a youngster to perceive and appreciate.

Oddly, Ayres portrays Chua’s methods as an effective “taking choice off the table” technique for building discipline, despite this crucial difference between his parenting approach and hers: he explicitly involved his children in the initial choice process and explained the pros and cons of their choices, whereas Chua imposed her choices on her children. That initial commitment by the child is key. Without it, the child is simply following rules divorced from meaning. With it, the child learns to connect desire with dedication and goal with process.


Collectively, these articles echo the fundamental values of attributing success to effort, nurturing intrinsic motivation, and setting high expectations that I summarized earlier, while also adding a richer perspective on cultural differences, peer pressure, and delayed gratification in promoting perseverance. While these articles haven’t and won’t receive the audience that brazen storytelling attracts, they give voice to relevant research that too often whispers quietly from the archives.

Diligence vs. competitiveness

I continue to be disappointed by the mainstream media’s coverage of the “tiger parenting” phenomenon. Although there’s now somewhat more discussion of the specific parenting practices that are good or bad for the child, distinct practices are still getting conflated. One of the latest that I’ve seen claims that “the intense emphasis on hard work comes with a deep, obsessive competitiveness.”

It ain’t necessarily so.

Setting aside my frustration with the media’s reliance on first-person anecdotes rather than research on aggregate populations, I’ll first acknowledge that emphasizing the value of hard work and discipline is indeed very productive. As I wrote in my previous post, it takes about ten years of deliberate practice to attain expertise[1], and those who believe in the value of effort are more likely to invest further effort[2][3] . A recently reported twin study similarly notes that children with greater self-control do better in school and have better health, financial, and social outcomes as adults[4].

But deliberate practice isn’t just rote practice, and worthwhile effort isn’t merely hours of exhaustion. Both require thoughtfulness in figuring out what needs more work and how to tackle it. Likewise, developing self-control requires more than simply being placed in a constraining environment. As I’ve previously noted, the complex and ill-structured world of imaginative play can improve children’s impulse control and self-regulation[5]. Much like the riddle about the town with two barbers, “just because it looks like what you want doesn’t mean it will produce what you want.” Here, it’s not enough just to put children and students through their paces in rigid settings that prevent them from going astray. The theme underlying all of these phenomena is that people need to learn how to decide for themselves how to manage their efforts and how to improve.

So how does this relate to competitiveness? Competition is based on social comparison, or norm-referenced assessment. While it may be inspiring to see the accomplishments of peers as a possibility for oneself, it can also be limiting to endeavor only to best them and not more generally to excel. Even more damaging, people have no control over the performance of their rivals, and chasing this uncontrollable target can foster that worrisome learned helplessness which can dampen enthusiasm, lower self-esteem, and inhibit future effort[6][7]. Instead, criterion-referenced assessment measures performance against fixed goals which can be set up as benchmarks and eventually internalized by the learner. Not only does this provide a clearer way of measuring success than normative comparisons, but it also helps the budding athlete, musician, or student succeed better in the long run.

I fully recognize that Chinese parents can be obsessively competitive about their children’s achievements, even through their self-effacing denials that their children are anything special. And it’s already been documented that the Chinese culture places a high premium on hard work. But these aren’t uniquely Chinese values, and they can be decoupled. The result isn’t some kind of compromise or blend between Chinese and American philosophies, but a selection of those beliefs and practices that have been shown to be productive across cultures.


[1] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[2] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[3] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[4] Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H.L., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B.W., Ross, S., Sears, M.R., Thomson, W.M., & Caspi, A. (in press). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
[5] Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.
[6] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.
[7] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1980). An analysis of learned helplessness: II. The processing of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 940-952.