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They may be well intentioned, but these phrases can actually be an insult and hurt young minds. Here's what you can say instead.

By Terri Huggins Hart
February 26, 2021
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Giving compliments to children that will help boost their self-esteem is good. Delivering compliments that put down a child's race or ethnicity is not. Unfortunately, many well-meaning adults are not aware of the difference and find themselves handing out backhanded compliments or microaggressions that do nothing more than offend.

Many of the microaggressions that people think are compliments are rooted in racial biases and limited exposure to diversity, according to Toy Edwards, mommy blogger and president of the African American Parent Support Group in West Windsor, New Jersey. "Many of these statements stem from deep cultural beliefs and misconceptions," adds Edwards.

Microaggressions are the everyday unintentional or subtle instances of discrimination directed at marginalized groups. So phrases one may think are harmless compliments can actually be racist. Even the most well-meaning people make the mistake of making racially insensitive comments. However well-meaning doesn't take away from the pain they may cause children.

An image of two young girls playing.
Credit: Getty Images.

When kids are young, they don't always understand why a particular compliment is wrong, but they do know they don't like how it makes them feel. It can be a very confusing thing for children to experience and can result in them feeling unhappy and insecure about their identity.

Here are six examples that are not compliments and should never be used.

Pointing out their eloquence

Example: "You're so well-spoken" or "You are very articulate."

Why it's problematic:

On the surface, it may seem like a well-intended phrase, but its underlying history makes it questionable. When it comes to children of color this "compliment" stems from racist stereotypes suggesting people of color are unable to speak eloquently and only use slang. Noting a BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and people of color) child's speech is essentially telling them that they deviate from the norm because you assumed they wouldn't be able to speak well.

For the recipient of the compliment it translates to: "You sound really smart for a Black person" or "It's unusual for someone of your race to be that smart."

Kids aren't buying it either. "My daughter hears it a lot and gets mad," says Edwards. "Her initial thought is they are mad because she doesn't speak broken English, and they underestimated her."

And even if a person speaks using slang, it does not mean that person isn't sophisticated, articulate, and eloquent.

What you can say instead:

"That was a dynamic presentation!" or "I love the charisma you display when you speak."

Complimenting their mix

Example: "Mixed kids are so beautiful cause they're the best of both worlds" or "Mixed kids are always the cutest."

Why it's problematic:

While you may think pointing out someone's appearance is a great compliment, crediting it to being biracial is not only offensive, it's tone-deaf.

It perpetuates the troubling beliefs that European traits remain the epitome of beauty and other standards of beauty pale in comparison whether or not you realize it. Complimenting the "best of both worlds" can underhandedly refer to muting traits associated with other ethnicities and the pronouncement of traits more aligned with white-passing.

Danielle Faust, life coach, podcaster, and mom of two can relate. "As a mom of two very light-skinned biracial children, I am honestly offended when people compliment 'the mix' of my children. A woman on a cruise once called my son 'the perfect mix' and I wondered what she would have thought had his skin been darker, nose wider, and hair kinkier. It's fine if you think the kid is cute. Just keep ethnicity out of it."

What you can say instead:

"You are so cute."

Referencing their bilingualism

Example: "That's so cool. Say something in Spanish/Chinese, etc."

Why it's problematic:

A well-intended request such as asking to hear a word or phrase in another language can be rather demeaning. It's essentially turning the recipient of the "compliment" into your performer or puppet for entertainment purposes.

At a time when many Americans still oppose hearing people speak a language other than English, asking someone to speak in another tongue for amusement can be insensitive.

Also, if you don't know for sure, it can be based on an empty assumption. Every child who appears Latino does not speak Spanish. And everyone who looks Chinese does not speak Mandarin, for example.

What you can say instead:

"I'm really interested in other languages and would like to learn one."

Praising physical attributes

Example: "You have good hair" or "I wish my hair did that" or "I wish my daughter could get away with that."

Why it's problematic:

Admiring the hairstyle of a child from another culture is cool. Saying that it's something "to get away with" and you should do it too, is not. Hairstyles prominent in other cultures is not something "to get away with" and implies that it's bad. When you say, you wish your hair did that it becomes a nod to cultural appropriation and ignores the fact that many children still face consequences for how they style their hair in school and work environments.

When people refer to good hair, they're usually referring to hair that resembles straight or looser-curled textures which is considered more manageable and appropriate, especially when it comes to Black people. The term "good hair" stems from the belief that curlier and kinkier hair textures are unprofessional, unkempt, and unruly. When you tell someone they have good hair you're essentially complimenting their assimilation which could result in a child's self-esteem and issues with identity.

What you can say instead:

"I like your hairstyle."

Discussing what you don't see or how they're different from the others

Example: "I don't even see you as Latino, Black, Indian, etc." or "You're not like the other Black kids."

Why it's problematic:

A colorblind society is not a good thing. When you tell a child that you don't think of them as the ethnicity or race they identify with you may actually be implying that where they come from is not good enough and who they are is drastically different than the stereotypes you have in their mind about their culture. It also tells a child that you don't see or choose to ignore their culture and the struggles they may face which can result in complexes about their background.

What you can say instead:

"Your beautiful culture and history is part of what makes you special."

Assuming their talent, skill, or career

Example: "You're lucky you're Asian so you'll be good at math" or "You would make a great professional athlete when you grow up since you're tall and Black."

Why it's problematic:

You may think you are complimenting their "natural talent" and pointing out their options but you are actually limiting their choices by playing into racial stereotypes.

What you can say instead:

"You have a lot of potential and a lot of career options to choose from."

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