The way children interact with each other is beyond fascinating to observe. The jokes they find funny, the way they tell secrets or even how they fight, there is endless ammunition for a comical blend of sociology and entertainment.

I am fortunate enough to have a front row seat to this show due to my 8-year-old twin brother and sister. Watching them converse with each other and hearing stories they share about their friends prove very insightful to understanding the world of an elementary school student. How their family, friends and society have shaped their principles, priorities, tastes and behavior.

Recently, I observed something that particularly struck me as enlightening to the principles society imparts on everyone, even those as young as 8. My sister, Talley, showed me a book her class made at the end of her last school year. It was a heartwarming book where each page was written by a different student who explained why they thought Talley was special. Each student had a similar book dedicated to them. I read some like, “Talley is special because she stands up for me,” that left me with a strong sense of pride for my sister.

All kept with this sweet theme until suddenly I was confronted with a page that left me conflicted. It read, “Talley is special because she is beautiful.”

Initially, I thought to myself, “How sweet of this boy!” However, this feeling quickly transitioned to me questioning the sentiment, “My sister is special because she is beautiful?” Out of all the qualities, what makes her special is her appearance?

I thought about what this imparts to Talley. Will she think she should only care about her appearance? If her peers don’t care about her intelligence, personality or interests, will she? Will she think that her beauty is what makes her special?

I thought of what this shows us about the young boy who wrote the comment. Is it already ingrained in his mind that the most important aspect of a woman is her appearance? Does he care about Talley’s other qualities?

I asked myself, can I be mad at this boy? And I resolved that I couldn’t; at the end of the day, he issued my sister a compliment. But I could take this instance to evaluate the social conditioning that fuels invisible sexism in our society.

I took this as a very poignant example of benevolent misogyny, or misogyny that takes the form of a compliment or as subjectively positive. While this kid had no intent to be prejudiced in any regard, or even for that matter no ability to understand sexism, his words have unexpected consequences. I’m sure he has learned this from the many adults whose first words to girls are about their outfits or their appearance. So, it’s impossible not to expect the little boy to also comment a girl’s beauty, and it’s impossible not to expect the girl not to care about her beauty.

However, this situation leaves me unresolved. To expect men to never comment on a young girl’s appearance seems both unattainable and undesirable. Everyone enjoys being complimented on their looks or clothes from time to time. However, young girls need to be taught that they are much more than what they look like. And that starts with telling girls that. I don’t see anyone telling my brother he’s special because he’s handsome.

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