Too Much, Too Soon: Advice for Parents on Dealing with Girls Growing Up Too Soon

By: Marie Williams

Last year, the blogosphere was all abuzz about a fashion spread in French Vogue that featured a ten-year-old model dressed like a Manhattan socialite, in heels and in full make-up, reclining on a bed. The image revived the debate we seem to have every other year or so about how media influences kids and sexualizes them way too soon.

In my view, there is no debate—media does influence kids and clearly sexualizes them way too soon. But don’t take my word for it, in 2010, the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a Task Force on The Sexualization of Girls that identified the problem and made recommendations for change.

If you’re not in the habit of reading reports of scientific study, then you need only look at television. One popular cable show follows families as they enter their toddler daughters in pageants that routinely feature Marilyn Monroe-esque poses and strangely seductive dance routines; another follows mothers as they desperately seek modeling careers for their pre-pubescent girls, often subjecting them to scathing criticism about the size and shape of their bodies, and their perceived fitness or un-fitness for a career in fashion. It’s difficult in the face of all this, to argue that our culture doesn’t push kids to grow up too quickly. While this isn’t a cultural phenomenon limited to girls by any means, it seems to me to be more in evidence if your child is female.

[Related: Talking to Teens about Advertising]

For example, my daughter, who’s just turned five, happens to love dolls; the more realistic the better. Whenever we’re in a toy store, she gravitates toward the ones that do things that real babies do, like coo or suckle or pee. And for a time, I viewed this as primarily a sign that she was developing healthy feelings of empathy, caring and compassion. Until the day my mother reported that she told her, "I can’t wait to be a Mommy." Wait, I thought. Is that okay? My own mother assured me that it was, and that all it meant was that my daughter’s experience with being mothered was positive. Perhaps so. I hope so.

Still, it made me reflect on the way we—intentionally or unintentionally—program our kids very early on to assume not only certain gender roles, but roles that they may not have otherwise assumed without our influence. I would much prefer my daughter not make a connection between a doll and something as weighty as ‘motherhood’. I would prefer that she see the doll as, well, a doll.

Clearly the solution would not be to wrench her treasured playthings from her arms; So what is a parent to do? I’ll happily acknowledge that I, personally, have no idea, so I went to the “experts” for help. Here are five tips I found that I'd like to share with you:

  • Monitor the images and influences your kids are exposed to. By the time your children watch television or begin to use a computer (which happens younger these days than ever before), they are subjected to images that convey subliminal or overt messages about a whole host of weighty subjects that you may not even have begun to address with them. Be attentive and intentional about that exposure. You may choose to shield them from certain types of information, or not. In either case, be prepared to provide context or discuss what they’ve seen.
  • Reinforce that self-worth is not based on looks. For girls especially, very early on, the lesson is taught that your value is proportionate to how attractive you are. And further, if you are attractive, you may not be perceived as intelligent or accomplished. Telling your daughter that she’s pretty is fine, but be careful not to do so to the exclusion of all her other assets, like the fact that she’s a great tennis player, a talented student, or a caring friend.
  • [Related: How Parents Can Help their Daughters Thrive in a Superficial World]

  • Avoid sending mixed messages. While early sexualization may be considered the third rail of growing up too soon, it’s not the only trap to avoid. Consider whether you give your daughter responsibilities that are more adult than may be appropriate. Does she do all the household laundry, cook dinners for a family of five, and get all her siblings ready for school though she’s only thirteen? If so, it’s difficult to then expect her to be a ‘child’. By “parentifying” her, you may inadvertently accelerate her feeling as though she is prematurely adult in other areas of her life as well.
  • [Related: Early Sexual Activity: An Introduction]
  • Keep her occupied with age-appropriate activities. The flip-side of the previous tip is to make sure the activities and pastimes you permit and support are positively age-appropriate. Age-appropriate activities are those that your child is developmentally prepared to engage in, enjoy and understand the implications of. For example, while an eleven-year old may be able to physically drive a car if taught, they clearly have no capacity to grasp the implications of having a two-ton piece of metal traveling at fifty miles per hour under their control.
  • Establish limits and impose boundaries. While it is difficult to deny your children things they want, it’s essential to establish healthy boundaries. You may look at images on television and clothing sold in stories for your daughter’s age-group and decide that rest of the world is more permissive than you are about what those boundaries should be. Don’t allow that to deter you from setting limits that are consistent with your values rather than what’s popular. Your nine-year old daughter’s friends may have an expensive cell phones and electronics, but rather than feel pressured to keep up with that standard, consider and establish your own; this will also encourage your daughter to think for herself.

    [Related: Setting Appropriate Cell Phone Boundaries.]

    The bottom line is that as parents, we know all too well that adulthood will come soon enough, and with it we lose many things that cannot be recaptured; one of the best gifts we can give our kids is the opportunity to savor their childhood.

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    Resources:

  • American Psychological Association, "Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls", What Parents Can Do (2010).
  • American Academy of Pediatrics, Share Your Values, at: http://tinyurl.com/c7bp7te
  • David Elkind, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, De Capo Press(2010).
  • Great points, Marie. While I have a son, I watch the girls he’s grown up with from infancy. The girls do take in the sexuality of young girls on TV shows targeting kids. They do see cartoons with weird womanly attributes or roles and adapt them to their “play world” and their interaction with my son. The lucky girls have parents and guardians who are able to balance their intake of hyper-sexualized culture with better gender discussions and life choice models.

    As you know, I have a son. On my end of the parenting spectrum, boys are trained to see young girls and women as sensual objects from an exceptionally young age. Cartoons, many books, TV, music. They hear it for themselves and get info as well as modeled behavior from siblings of older friends. My best course of action as a mom of a son is to model healthy attitudes about self, appearance, worth, responsibility and roles. I also talk to him about boys, girls, men, and women a great deal. We talk about what he sees, what he thinks, what his friends think. Does he agree or disagree, etc. He is seven now, and I think he’s still not at all prepared to be interested in girls, but the girls are keen on hand holding, innocent kisses, flirts, playing grown up (yikes) and saying he will marry them when they grow up (triple yikes). He’d rather be swinging from trees, throwing rocks and building things. Which is to say, he is engaged in age appropriate behavior.

    One can not avoid interacting with the world, so discussing it in order to provide children with a frame of reference from which to engage, analyze and choose their identities is the best solution. But it takes constant work. I also make him abundantly aware of what is natural and what is enhanced be it lipstick, mascara, photoshop, etc. Can’t start too young on giving kids a glimpse into the adult world of make believe.

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    These are excellent suggestions. My mother’s favorite expression was, “Beauty is only skin deep,” so I appreciate your suggestion to “reinforce that self-worth is not based on looks.” Yes, let’s provide our children with opportunities to enjoy being a child. It is vital today that children be protected from too much media and technology. Certainly establishing limits and imposing boundaries are critical for their healthy development. For a direct link to a related article, “Texting and Children” see: http://www.kellybear.com/ParentTips/ParentTip11.html

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