The word 'sweet' may be considered a compliment, but it actually has the power to hold girls back. Here's why calling my 4-year-old daughter that is off limits.

girl in tutu with lollipop in front of sprinkles background
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (1)

There are more than 170,000 words currently used in the English language. So many colorful, magnificent, powerful, imaginative, startling, and brilliant adjectives available to describe things and people.

Still, there's one word that keeps popping up in social media posts, in compliments given to friends, and even on decorative signs for the home: Sweet. It has become a buzzword of sorts for parents to use, especially when describing girls.

Unfortunately, sweet is just that—acceptable, pleasant, agreeable. Sweet isn't just a "nice" word and it's certainly not harmless. Sweet is a syrup thick enough to weigh down girls as they grow into adulthood, work to accomplish their dreams and achieve whatever success looks like to them. That’s why I don’t want to hear anyone calling my 4-year-old daughter sweet.

Of course, most of us who've used the word sweet don't do it with malicious intent. On the surface, sweet is a safe word. It's a word we figure we can use without offending someone. But the word actually carries a lot of power, says Megan Bearce, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Wayzata, Minnesota. The word reminds Bearce of the old nursery rhyme that says girls are "sugar and spice and everything nice.”

"Our society has been sending this message for eons, and it does so much harm to self-esteem, body image, and the ability to voice our opinions and ideas," says Bearce. It’s the opposite of what she encourages girls to do: “Speak up, question authority, express your feelings, and be your own person.”

Constantly referring to a child as sweet can make them docile in situations where they should stand up for themselves, says Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified eating disorders specialist based in Valley Village, California. “When ‘sweet’ becomes a main identity, it can get in the way of advocating for oneself,” she says. Things like “Get your hands off me” and “Stop it” may become more difficult to say because they aren’t what one would consider "sweet."

Sweet as a main identity can also hamper a child’s self-expression. "If 'sweet' is used as a primary label, it might confuse a child when they experience moments or emotions that are not sweet but are human and natural," says Spotts-De Lazzer. The resulting shame from unpleasant emotions could drive the child to hide the feelings instead of learning how to manage those emotions in healthy, strengthening ways.

So what can we tell our kids instead of sweet? "We can say 'kind' or 'thoughtful' or 'funny'. Encourage girls to take risks, get dirty, try new things, and make mistakes doing them. We can let girls have big emotions of all kinds, just as we should allow boys to express feelings other than anger without shaming them,” says Bearce.

Spotts-De Lazzer also recommends explaining to children that who they are inside is composed of many ingredients. Sweet might be part of that, but is far from representing the whole person.

As for my daughter, I'm committed to choosing more empowering words to describe her, and I would encourage others to proceed with caution while throwing the word sweet around.

We need to use our words to lift each other up, and to help one another tap into our inner strength. We should choose words that fortify our children to create the society they want to see, and to be the kind, bold, brave, well-rounded people they are capable of being.

Sweet isn't an agent of change. Sweet belongs in baking. Not girls.