Thong panties, padded bras, and risqué Halloween costumes for young girls. T-shirts that boast “Chick Magnet” for toddler boys. Sexy content on almost every television channel, as well as in books, movies, video games, and even cartoons. Hot young female pop stars wearing provocative clothing and dancing suggestively while singing songs with sexual and sometimes violent lyrics. These products are marketed aggressively to our children; these stars are held up for our young daughters to emulate–and for our sons to see as objects of desire.
Popular culture and technology inundate our children with an onslaught of mixed messages at earlier ages than ever before. Corporations capitalize on this disturbing trend, and without the emotional sophistication to understand what they are doing and seeing, kids are getting into increasing trouble emotionally and socially; some may even to engage in precocious sexual behavior. Parents are left shaking their heads, wondering: How did this happen? What can we do?
So Sexy So Soon is an invaluable and practical guide for parents who are fed up, confused, and even scared by what their kids–or their kids’ friends–do and say. Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., internationally recognized experts in early childhood development and the impact of the media on children and teens, understand that saying no to commercial culture–TV, movies, toys, Internet access, and video games–isn’t a realistic or viable option for most families. Instead, they offer parents essential, age-appropriate strategies to counter the assault. For instance:
· Help your children expand their imaginations by suggesting new ways for them to play with toys–for example, instead of “playing house” with dolls, they might send their toys on a backyard archeological adventure.
· Counteract the narrow gender stereotypes in today’s media: ask your son to help you cook; get your daughter outside to play ball.
· Share your values and concerns with other adults–relatives, parents of your children’s friends–and agree on how you’ll deal with TV and other media when your children are at one another’s houses.
Filled with savvy suggestions, helpful sample dialogues, and poignant true stories from families dealing with these issues, So Sexy So Soon provides parents with the information, skills, and confidence they need to discuss sensitive topics openly and effectively so their kids can just be kids.
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Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., (right) is a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, where she has been involved in training early childhood professionals for more than twenty-five years. An internationally recognized expert who helps professionals and parents deal with the effects of violence, media, and commercial culture on children, Levin is a senior adviser to the PBS parents’ website for girls, the co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the author or co-author of seven other books, including Remote Control Childhood? and The War Play Dilemma. She is a frequent keynote speaker and workshop presenter and has been a guest on many radio and television programs. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the image of women in advertising. The New York Times Magazine named her one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses. Her award-winning films include the Killing Us Softly series, Slim Hopes, Calling the Shots, and Spin the Bottle. The author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, she is a frequent guest on radio and television programs such as Today and The Oprah Winfrey Show. She has testified for the U.S. Congress and been an adviser to two surgeons general. A Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
Never Too Young to Be Sexy
Living with Children in Today’s Sexualized World
It has never been easy being a parent. But today, it has gotten even more difficult. A 2002 survey by an organization called Public Agenda found that 76 percent of parents felt it was a lot harder to raise children today than when they were growing up, and 47 percent reported that their biggest challenge was trying to protect their children from negative societal influences, including disturbing and confusing images, violence, and age-?inappropriate messages appearing in the media.
How would you have answered this survey? Are you, too, having a hard time trying to protect your children from negative influences? Are you finding it difficult to set and enforce limits on the media that your children are exposed to—to determine how much, when, and what? As parents, you are often told that it’s your job to “just say no” to all of the inappropriate content out there, and that this will solve the problem. But just saying no won’t solve the problem, and anyway, you can’t say no to everything!
Instead, we simply have to deal with the popular culture in our children’s lives, often at the most unexpected times, in unforeseen ways, and whether we want to or not. This book is designed to help you do just that. And in order to be able to do so, the first order of business is to examine and recognize when and how the new sexualized childhood is influencing children from a young age.
Several recent books and news and research reports have expressed concern about today’s sexual attitudes and behavior of many adolescents, and increasingly even tweens (eight-? to twelve-?year-? olds). These accounts often make it seem as if the behavior in question suddenly appears out of a vacuum when children enter high school (or middle school). Rarely do we hear about what was happening in the early years that paved the way for what is happening with teens.
There is a lot going on in children’s lives around issues of sexuality and sexiness that is important for the caring adults in their lives to recognize. The following stories from parents and teachers make it very clear that if we are to understand and deal with the sexualization of childhood, we must begin our efforts with very young children.
CRYING IN THE BATHTUB
Jennifer reported that one evening not long ago, her seven-?year-?old daughter Hannah began crying in the bathtub. Alarmed, Jennifer asked what was wrong. Hannah responded, “I’m fat! I’m fat! I want to be pretty like Isabelle—sexy like her! Then Judd would like me too!” Jennifer knew Isabelle, a very thin, very popular girl in Hannah’s class who wore “stylish” clothes that Jennifer thought were inappropriate for a seven-?year-?old. Jennifer put her hand on Hannah’s shoulder and said she liked Hannah’s body—it was a wonderful body for a seven-?year-?old and she certainly ?didn’t need to lose weight. But Hannah continued to cry and to say that she wanted to go on a diet. Jennifer felt uncertain about what to say or do next. In her view, Hannah had a normal body for a seven-?year-?old girl. Jennifer thought it must be abnormal for such a young child to be thinking about diets, let alone wanting boys to like her for being “pretty” and “sexy.” But, normal or not, Jennifer saw that Hannah was truly concerned and distressed, and she wanted to do something to help.
As Jennifer strove to understand Hannah’s outburst, she was tempted to put a lot of the blame on Hannah’s friends, who were becoming increasingly influential and important to her. Recently, Hannah had come home from a playdate talking about having had a fashion show with her friend’s Bratz dolls. Jennifer was concerned that when Hannah and her friends played together they often acted out going on “dates” and having weddings with their Barbie dolls, but she was truly horrified by the time they spent at other houses with Bratz dolls—by their name, their anorexic-?looking bodies, their overt sexuality and hooker?like wardrobe, as well as by the focus on shopping and appearance as the point of the play. When she voiced her reservations about Hannah’s having the dolls, Hannah said that everyone else had them and that she loved playing with them at other children’s houses.
She and her friends liked dressing them up and having them go shopping and out on dates. Although Jennifer ?didn’t give in, she ? wasn’t sure what she would do when Hannah’s birthday arrived the following month. She was certain some other girls would give these dolls to Hannah as gifts. Even if Jennifer took them away, she knew Hannah would continue to play with them at her friends’ homes. Recently, Hannah had begun to nag about joining the Bratz website, an online community where kids can play and buy things for their Bratz dolls in cyberspace, along with other children who are logged on.
Deep down, however, Jennifer realized that what worried her most was where this interest in appearance, popularity, and sexiness would lead. If Hannah was dissatisfied with her body at the age of seven, she wondered how she might feel at thirteen. Jennifer had seen news stories about an increase in precocious sexual behavior among children and teens, and she knew that eating disorders were on the rise, even among little girls. Were Hannah’s tears about her body the first sign of such trouble for her? What was the relationship between concerns about body image and sexuality? And what did she mean by being “sexy” anyway? Knowing how high the stakes were, Jennifer felt almost desperate to find the right way to respond. But she was upset with herself for feeling unsure, even anxious, about knowing the right thing to say or do.
PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING GIRLS
Nora, a highly experienced kindergarten teacher, told us about an incident with a child that left her scrambling to figure out how to respond. In his daily school journal, five-?year-?old James had made a drawing of what looked to Nora like a woman, with long hair and bright red lips as well as big wavy circles on her chest that looked like breasts. Next to the drawing he had written the letter W over and over again. Nora asked him to tell her about his picture. She was caught off guard when James explained that his drawing was of “a professional wrestling girl with big boobies.”
“At first I thought he was trying to be fresh, to be a wise guy, but I caught myself before I reacted too harshly,” Nora reported. “I took a deep breath and tried to think through how to respond. I decided to start with a question.” (This is almost always a good way to start when you’re not quite sure what to say.) So Nora asked James what he knew about “wrestling girls.” He matter-?of-?factly replied with his eyes open wide, “I saw her on TV last night with my [big] brother, Brett. He was babysitting! He let me stay up late and watch with him! It’s a secret!” She was glad she had asked him the initial question about what he knew about wrestling girls, because his response helped her begin to get a handle on what was going on for James.
Nora recalled that it was the look on James’s face when he answered her, of both bravado and worry at the same time, that left her confused and concerned. She knew that James’s parents were quite clear about limiting the amount and kind of media in his life. She knew how much James looked up to fourteen-?year-?old Brett and admired everything he did. She was pretty sure that James’s parents would be distressed if they knew about Brett and James’s secret! She was also pretty sure that if James shared the secret with her, he was asking for something, but what exactly was it?
Rather than try to work it all out with James at that moment, Nora decided to buy some time to think about what to do. So she said to James, “It sounds like you saw things you ?hadn’t seen before?.?.?.? things that were not really for kindergartners. I’m glad you told me about your secret.” James smiled and put his journal away.
After the event was over, there was a lot for Nora to consider. Why did James decide to disclose the secret to her and do it through his daily journal? Why did he choose to focus on the breasts? Did he know that focusing on them could be seen as provocative to his teacher or have sexual connotations? After all, what signifies sex to an adult might mean something quite different to a five-?year-?old. Was James trying to use his drawing to brag and feel more grown up about his having seen this grown-?up program? Or could he have made his drawing because he needed someone to talk to about it when he knew he ? couldn’t reveal it to his parents because it was a secret? Was he testing Nora to see if she would get upset or angry, or looking to her to help him sort the experience out?
Nora began to think about the issue more broadly than just about James. If James drew his picture of the “professional wrestling girl” as a way of talking to an adult about something disturbing he saw on the screen, as Nora now thought he did, do other children also need such opportunities to process the graphic content they are seeing in media and popular culture? Well, then, whom are they talking to? How often do children end up seeing things their parents don’t want them to see and then learn not to talk to adults about it? And when they do experience the forbidden fruit, what does it teach them about honesty and deceit and about the nature of their relationship with the important adults in their lives?
Finally, Nora started to feel better about how she had responded to James and realized she had learned an important lesson for her future teaching: Whether they’re scared or want to feel grown-up and impress others with what th...
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