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Little Girls in Sexually Charged Times

A shopping excursion two years ago is still fresh in my mind. I needed to buy outfits for my nieces, then seven and nine years old. I was in a large department store searching through rack after rack to find something cute, but was finding mainly outfits that I might wear on a night out: a bit too sexy. I even searched through stereotypically conservative and preppy brands—but there too, I found low-waisted pants, very short skirts and too-low scooped tops. Was I imagining it, or are designers specifically creating sexy clothes for girls? After finding a top that had ‘sexy’ written across it, hanging beside a rack of Bratz dolls, it seems that clearly they are.

Recently, I’ve read a few articles in various newspapers and magazines reflecting that psychologists, parents, and educators are concerned that American little girls are growing up faster than ever before. Some parents lament that the advertising, music, and fashion industries all encourage their tweens to jump into teen behavior, when they may not be able to handle issues once kept solely in the adolescent domain. Such as sex. In fact, last year federal officials recommended a vaccine for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)—a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can lead to cervical cancer—to treat girls as young as age nine.

Parents are undoubtedly worried and unsure of what tactics to take to help their little girls, when their children are surrounded by images of sex in fashion and the media. For advice on this topic, I talked with Linda Sonna, Ph.D., an author of twelve parenting books, including: The Everything Tween Book: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Turbulent Pre-Teen Years.  

Laura: So many parents lament that their tween girls are behaving like teens and rushing to grow up faster than we did in the past. We all want to emulate older kids, so do you think this is really the case? And if so, why?

Dr. Sonna: Kids naturally mimic their parents and older siblings, and modern kids are being raised by two families—their own and the mass media. They spend less time than ever with parents and more time with the TV, where they are continually exposed to images of teenaged and adult behavior. It’s important to remember that tweens may sound like teenagers when they talk, but that doesn’t mean they can reason and exercise judgment like older people.

Laura: Parents of daughters aged eight to twelve are discouraged by the seductive clothing that designers are selling and how sexually charged the world seems to be today. Parents worry that it sends their young daughters the wrong message. What advice do you have for them?

Dr. Sonna: The best way to lengthen your tween’s childhood is to pull the plug on the tube! When you pass the racks of fashion magazines in the grocery store, let your tween know that you consider it unfortunate that there is so much emphasis placed on women’s beauty. Let her know you appreciate her worth in other areas: her intelligence, sense of humor, and good heart.

Laura: What is the best strategy to talk with your tween daughters about sex? At this point, they likely understand mechanics of sex, but isn’t it now the right time to talk about other aspects of sex, not just responsibility and safety, but about the emotional dynamic and why waiting is important?

Dr. Sonna: The tween years are indeed the time to talk to your daughter about sex—not just the mechanics, but the meaning. Explain the dangers but don’t count on your warnings deterring her through the teenaged years. Most teens are convinced they are invulnerable. Discuss the emotional repercussions. Let her know that after making love, women usually end up feeling bonded to their partner. They must know him well enough to be sure that they are giving their heart to the right person, and be sure that they are both committed to the relationship for the long haul. If the relationship turns out to be unhealthy, they are in for lots of misery. If it doesn’t last, they will probably end up with a broken heart.

Laura: Parents who are trying to help their tweens enjoy their childhood feel as if they are fighting an up-hill battle when other parents of their children’s peers are allowing young girls of twelve to go on dates, wear promiscuous clothing, makeup, and earrings. What is the best strategy for parents when talking to their children about why they don’t want their children to do these things, even though others are allowed to.

Dr. Sonna: My own mother had a great solution to the problem of kids who misbehave or are intent on doing what their friends are doing. “Sonnas don’t do that,” she would say. It started with “Sonnas don’t eat candy between meals. That’s bad for children’s teeth. In our family, we take care of our teeth” and continued through, “Sonnas don’t attend coed sleepovers. We don’t put ourselves in situations where we might be tempted to do things we shouldn’t.” All of her “Sonnas do this” and “Sonnas don’t do that” helped us build pride in our family. We actually felt a bit sorry for kids who did the things we were forbidden to do. We also had ready explanations when our “less fortunate” friends asked why we couldn’t do certain things. 

Laura: Do you have any children of your own, that you draw your advice from?

Dr. Sonna: I fostered six children. What I learned is that criticizing kids for wanting to do what their friends do routinely backfires. Listening to their reasons for each request and telling them that I would consider them and let them know my answer helped them understand that I considered their wishes as important. I had time to think things through, which helped prevent me from making decisions I later regretted. Taking the time to explain the reasons for my decisions and not demanding that they like them, allowed them to grumble and discharge their anger. But they knew I was unlikely to change my mind, so they didn’t devote a lot of energy to trying to wear me down.

 

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