Sexy Halloween costumes for tweens. A major apparel brand selling a padded bikini top for girls as young as 7. Glammed-up dolls for preschoolers that are all about shopping and looking hot. “Lady Killer” onesies for newborn boys. Does it feel as if society’s focus on sex and looks is relentless, and it’s impacting our children? You’re not alone—plenty of parents are concerned about these issues but aren’t sure what to do about it. We spoke with Diane E. Levin, the co-author (along with Jean Kilbourne) of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, to get her advice on how parents can help their children navigate the challenges of living in a beauty- and sex-oriented culture.
Reduce Gender Stereotypes at Home
“Don’t focus on appearance and gender divisions that create sexualized girls and macho boys,” Levin tells us. “It does start with babies.” It’s okay not to have a pink princess-themed room for a newborn baby girl and to pass on buying your infant boy a T-shirt that says “Chick Magnet.” Purchase toys that allow for a broad range of play, such as markers, blocks and balls, and make sure you’re asking your son to help you cook or your daughter to toss a baseball around the backyard. Try to read books that have smart, capable, competent characters of both genders. And rather than compliment your daughter for being “pretty,” let her know it’s what she did that was great. Did she learn a new song for the piano? Be kind to her younger cousin? Clear the table without being asked? She’ll get the message it’s what she does, not how she looks, that matters most.
Be Mindful of Media Messages
As they get older, limit exposure as much as possible to TV shows and other media that have sexual content or stereotypical gender roles. If your child is watching something or reading something you think sends the wrong message, talk to them about it, or even better, ask questions. Levin says when her son was younger, he and his buddy were watching a show in which the male characters went out and battled evil ghosts while the sole female character sat behind a desk and ran the office. Levin casually asked the boys why they thought the female didn’t get to fight but was careful not to preach to them or make them feel badly about watching the show they enjoyed. When the series finally let the female character in on the action, the boys noticed and excitedly ran in to tell Levin all about it.
Keep Communication Lines Open
“Stay connected to your child,” Levin says. When it comes to sex, all kids will have questions and, oftentimes, confusion on the topic. If you keep the lines of communication open and try to have conversations about sexual topics in an age-appropriate way, your child is more likely to turn to you when he or she is concerned or confused about something rather than feel too ashamed to bring it up in the first place.
Don’t Just Say No
Your child is upset—all her friends are going to see a movie that you don’t think she’s old enough for. Now what? Your first impulse might be to say “absolutely not,” but Levin counsels against that strategy. Instead, talk to her about it. Could you find a middle ground, such as agreeing that you and she will go together to the movie and then have a chance to talk about it afterward? If she begs to wear makeup because “everyone else” does, talk to her about what it is that she likes about makeup. Ask plenty of questions! Acknowledge that being the “only one” who can’t do something feels isolating and hard, and see if you can find a solution that will make both of you comfortable. You might agree to let her wear lip gloss but also explain, “We don’t want you to wear makeup because we don’t believe that how you look is the most important thing.” Your child will hear you. The danger of just saying no? Your kid will sneak around behind your back and do what she wants rather than coming to you to work out a solution together. See these opportunities as teachable moments.
Work With the Community
Levin agrees it’s tough to stand firm with no backup. If there’s something going on at school that concerns you, speak with a teacher or the administration to come up with a solution. At one school Levin worked with, the school ultimately instituted a dress code because the wealthier students with massive clothing budgets were teasing the poorer students of limited means. After the dress code was instituted, teachers reported seeing an increase in confidence in the students who’d formerly felt self-conscious about their wardrobes. Another option is to find a family who shares your values. Maybe if your daughter or son has a close friend with the same household rules, it will make it easier for your child to obey them.
Acknowledge that Boys Are Impacted, Too
“Girls suffer more overtly and perhaps more deeply [from a sexualized childhood], but boys suffer too,” Levin and Kilbourne write. Levin tells us that a huge percentage of boys have seen porn on the Internet by age 12. Although sex and sexuality is a normal and appropriate part of a caring and connected relationship between two adults, children won’t learn that if they’re only seeing people treat each other as objects. Make sure your son is hearing positive messages about gender equality, respecting each other and not reducing the opposite sex to just how they look.
Although it can feel overwhelming, there are tools to help parents struggling to let their kids be kids for as long as possible. There’s Levin and Kilbourne’s book along with Peggy Orenstein’s well-reviewed Cinderella Ate My Daughter. And you might want to check out the American Psychological Association’s report from the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which provides tips for parents. Most of all, keep talking—to your kids, to your family, to one another and to the community at large.