Eight-year-olds wearing makeup? Nine-year-olds singing about “hoes”? Ten-year-olds wanting six-pack abs or big breasts? Experts tell you how to counteract the sexual messages that surround our kids, and help them stay young a little longer.
Kathy Smith's 10-year-old son, Mason, and his friends often ogle the buxom women and muscular male characters in video games. The boys make comments about the women's breasts, but they also talk about the men, she says. “They'll zoom in on one of the guys and say, ‘Look how big his private parts are,’” says Smith. Now Mason often asks his mom, “When am I going to have a six-pack?” “I told him ten-year-olds don't have six-packs,” says Smith. “He says he can't wait until he's twelve so he can work out on the adult floor of the gym. I try to stress that being healthy is the most important thing.”
Situations like this are all too common these days, and they're affecting kids at younger and younger ages. When you think about the explicitly sexy images and themes children are exposed to in video games, television shows, and music videos, it's hardly surprising that many start to imitate some of the behavior they see daily. Idols like Miley Cyrus seem to morph overnight from wholesome Disney TV star to strutting video vamp in leather. Lindsay Lohan's youngest fans know her as both the freckle-faced girl from The Parent Trap…and an out-of-control young woman in trouble with the law.
What's alarming is that new research shows that sexual images and messages can take a serious toll on your child's well-being. According to Diane Levin, Ph.D., coauthor of So Sexy So Soon and professor of education at Wheelock College, in Boston, the message kids are taking away from these images is that buying the “right” things and looking the “right” way—and, specifically, appealing to the opposite sex—are what determine their value as people. That message is a minefield for children.
Studies have shown that girls who are obsessed with their appearance are more likely to start smoking, become depressed, and develop an eating disorder as they get older. When girls reach the teen years, those who value themselves only for their sexual attractiveness are more likely to do risky things, such as avoiding using condoms during sex, since they're not comfortable asserting themselves in sexual situations. These girls are also less able to focus on academic tasks and physical activities.
Boys, meanwhile, are getting the message that they need to have an attractive girlfriend to be accepted. And those boys who feel they need to appear sexually active and tough to be considered cool may become depressed if they don't measure up.
Thinking of the opposite sex in a romantic way at a young age is harmful because it sets kids up for earlier sexual activity and deprives them of friendship, says Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., coauthor of So Sexy So Soon. “When kids judge each other based on their looks, they don't learn how to have caring, connected relationships,” she adds. Both boys and girls may be at risk of developing body-image problems and loss of self-esteem if they strive to look sexy when they're still too young.
The good news is you can help your child navigate these minefields. “Kids are more connected to their parents than the media, so your message has more power,” says Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., author of Packaging Girlhood and professor of education at Colby College, in Waterville, ME. You don't need to have all the answers; simply acknowledging the pressures your child is facing is enough. The goal is to keep the lines of communication open so that when bigger issues come up, your child will feel safe talking with you, says Brown.
Here, parents and experts share their strategies for tackling some of the most troubling sexual dilemmas kids are facing today.
THE DILEMMA: My 6-year-old son walked up to a girl and said, “I want to have sex with you!”
WHAT TO SAY: “Your son probably has no idea what the word [sex] means, so if you come down hard on him, it will be frightening and confusing,” says Kilbourne. Ask him why he said it and what he thinks it means. Chances are he doesn't know, so you can give him an age-appropriate definition. “Explain that the word ‘sex’ is used by grown-ups to talk about something only grown-ups do,” suggests Lydia Shrier, M.D., a physician in the Adolescent/Young Adult Clinic at Children's Hospital Boston.
Encourage your son to talk to you about words he doesn't understand. Since the source of many of these words is television, it may be helpful if you watch his favorite TV shows and movies with him, and discuss what he sees and hears. In fact, a study showed that when parents watch a show and discuss it with their kids, they can influence the way children interpret the sexual messages on TV. Even shows young children watch, such as iCarly, Zoey 101, andVictorious, contain subtle sexual messages. “Kids are confused about the messages they're getting from TV,” says Levin. “We're blaming children for saying and doing things that make perfect sense given what they're exposed to. Adults need to stop punishing kids and help them try to understand what's going on.”
That strategy worked for Christina Diehl when her 6-year-old son, Erich, told a girl at a family cookout that she was sexy. Diehl took him aside and calmly asked if he knew what the word meant. He thought about it for a minute and said, “She's pretty.” Diehl told Erich she'd rather he used the word “pretty.” “I said, ‘We don't use the word ‘sexy’ when we talk to girls,’” recalls the mom of two from Long Valley, NJ. “I was upset because he didn't know what the word meant. I'm worried that he will continue to say things he doesn't understand, and people will get angry.”
THE DILEMMA: My 9-year-old daughter wants to wear short skirts and midriff-baring tops to school, but I don't want her to dress like a teenager.
WHAT TO SAY: Your immediate reaction might be to nix the trashy outfits, but you're better off trying to figure out what would make your daughter happy. “If you say no, your child might learn to do things behind your back,” says Levin. “If you let her feel like she has a voice, you'll help her learn to live thoughtfully and responsibly.”
Ask your daughter why she wants to dress like this. If she says she's worried that her friends—or boys—won't like her if she doesn't, ask if her girlfriends have the same problem and what they do. Explain why you're concerned and sympathize about how hard it is to live up to these standards. Then try to compromise. Maybe she can wear a short-but-not-too-short skirt with her favorite sweater. In the meantime, try to get her interested in something other than clothes. Encourage her to participate in activities that will make her feel good about herself, such as gymnastics or the school play, and support her friendships with kids less concerned about appearances.
Annette Cavallone faced this situation recently when her 7-year-old daughter, Sara, wanted to tie up her shirt to expose her midriff at a soccer game. “I asked her why, and she said the other girls wear their shirts like that, and she wants to show her belly because she's skinny,” says the mother of three in Long Valley, NJ. “Sara thinks it's cool to look like that, but she doesn't understand what ‘sexy’ is. I said, ‘You're here to play soccer; this isn't a fashion show.’ And I mentioned that she wouldn't be comfortable playing soccer that way. I'm wondering, where are these girls going to go from here if they're dressing like teens now?”
THE DILEMMA: My 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter love listening to music and singing along with the lyrics. But how can I talk to them about sexually explicit lyrics like “bluffin' with my muffin” from Lady Gaga's “Poker Face,” or the “hoes” in rap songs like “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”?
WHAT TO SAY: You can't always control the music your kids hear—and you don't want to always be in a confrontational relationship with them—so the best way to handle it is to start with an open-ended, positive question like “Why do you like this music?” Of course, they'll tell you it's cool or all their friends listen to it, but you need to welcome their opinions so your kids will listen to you when you tell them how you feel about the music, says Dr. Shrier.
Once you've heard them out, say you understand why they like it, then mention your objections. “You can say something like ‘I can see why you like the music, but I don't like the way the singer talks about women,’” says Kilbourne, who herself had a discussion with her daughter about Eminem. You might also point out that many rap artists try to create a tough image for themselves because it helps sell their music, adds Kilbourne. If your kids ask what the lyrics mean, put them in simple, age-appropriate terms they'll understand, such as “‘hoe’ is not a nice way to describe someone,” says Dr. Shrier.
THE DILEMMA: My 10-year-old son feels pressure to ask girls on dates, but I know he's not ready yet.
WHAT TO SAY: Ask your son why he feels that way and what he really wants to do. “Hear him out in a supportive way, then let him know how you feel about dating at a young age,” advises Dr. Shrier. “You might say something like ‘It sounds like you feel you should do this, but it might not be the right choice for you. Your dad and I can help you decide.’” When you talk with your child in a collaborative way, it will help keep the lines of communication open. Find out what “going on a date” means to him. “It's important not to make any assumptions about what he wants to do with a girl,” says Dr. Shrier. He might just want to talk to her. If that's the case, perhaps he can invite a group of friends over and include her.
Scott Costello's mom, Lisa, is worried about her son's popularity. Girls chase the 10-year-old around the playground, and moms tell Costello their daughters are in love with Scott. “Girls call and hang up if he doesn't answer,” says the mother of three from Summit, NJ. “He's only in fourth grade, and this is ridiculous. I feel like the attention he's getting from girls is taking away his innocence.”
THE DILEMMA: Sometimes my eight-year-old daughter gets off the school bus wearing another girl's makeup.
WHAT TO SAY: Nearly all girls play with their mom's makeup and high heels, and “it's a good way to explore adulthood in a safe environment,” says M. Gigi Durham, Ph.D., author of The Lolita Effect. But wearing makeup to school or outside the house is another matter. Tell her you noticed she was wearing makeup when she got off the bus, and ask her why she put it on.
Hear her out first, suggests Dr. Shrier, then you can say something like “I don't think kids your age should be wearing makeup, because it's for grown-ups. Grownups might do it to feel prettier, but it doesn't look the same way on a young person.” Keep in mind that some parents do let their girls wear lip gloss to school, so it's important to remind your daughter that families have different rules and that you do what you think is best for your child.
If your daughter still feels strongly about wearing makeup, let her pick out some lip balm so she has the sensation of wearing lip gloss to school. “She'll feel like she made a choice and won't start hiding it behind your back,” says Brown.
If there's one simple rule for counteracting some of the harmful messages children are receiving from popular culture, it's this: Praise your children for what they do well—not just for how they look. We can't deny that it's important to feel attractive, especially in a culture where looks are so highly valued. But it's even more important that children are recognized for their accomplishments, so they realize that their looks aren't everything.
Relax, It's Normal!
By Jennifer Kelly Geddes
Asking about sex, experimenting with makeup, repeating a risqué phrase they hear at school—you can expect all these things. Here are a few more activities and behaviors you can chalk up to kids just being kids.
- 6 to 8 Years Old: Dressing up like grown-ups (instead of princesses or cowboys); playacting, such as pretending to go out to a club or mimicking other things seen on television.
- 8 to 10 Years Old: Taking the clothes off dolls; having dolls or action figures kiss each other (such as pretending that Barbie is smooching Ken or Spider-Man); using dolls or action figures to imitate romantic scenes from TV or movies.
- 10 to 12 Years Old: Looking at gossip magazines; cutting out photos of singers, actors, or other celebrities; hand-holding with first boyfriends or girlfriends.
Girls Are Entering Puberty Earlier
By Beth Weinhouse
American girls are beginning puberty at earlier ages than previously noted—some between the ages of 7 and 9. There are various factors contributing to the shift, but there are also steps we can take to keep our daughters healthy no matter when they enter puberty.
Make sure your child has regular checkups so that any problem is detected early. In some cases, starting puberty prematurely may be a sign of an underlying illness or hormonal problem. Be sure your children see their doctor regularly so their growth and development can be monitored.
Help your daughter maintain a healthy weight by encouraging nutritious food choices and regular exercise. “It does appear that the change [girls' entering puberty younger] is driven in part by higher body mass index, or BMI,” says Frank Biro, M.D., director of the division of adoescent medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Body fat is linked to increased hormone levels.
Minimize exposure to the hormone-disrupting chemicals found in many plastics. More studies are being done about this potential cause of early puberty, but right now experts believe it's prudent to minimize your family's exposure to the phthalates common in so many plastics.
What about boys? Boys tend to enter puberty later than girls, and their age of puberty onset doesn't seem to be changing.