Sexualizing kids: No child left behind — and fighting back

Parents, organizations decide to fight back

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Many parents feel helpless in such a world, says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, Mass., who has studied childhood and the media for more than two decades, has written eight books on the topic and recently co-wrote the book "So Sexy So Soon." She has talked with thousands of parents and says those who shop at retail stores have a hard time finding wholesome clothes and toys for their children.

"I keep thinking 'Where can it go from here?' but somehow they find ways to keep it going," she said.

And parents today need different tactics than they used to, Levin said, adding that they can't "just say no" to everything.

Steve Thomsen, a professor of communication at Brigham Young University, who has also studied the issue of media messages and sexualization, agrees.

While saying no is a natural parental instincts, he says the optimal approach is to help their child understand why a certain TV show or piece of clothing is not OK. "You'd be surprised at how reasonable children can be when rules are accompanied by an explanation," he says. "Children are always learning. If they're not learning from their mothers or fathers, they are going to learn from other sources."

A mom once pointed out to Levin that "even when you do say no, much of what you say no to slips into your child's life anyway — at a friend's house or as a birthday gift from a friend or relative."

Levin also recalled a conversation she had with a grandmother recently who told her that she doesn't like to take her 4-year-old granddaughter to the mall or restaurants because of something the little girl learned at a birthday party.

The theme was Hannah Montana, and the birthday girl's older sister taught all the 4-year-olds how to dance "sexy." Now every time a pop song comes on, the young girl will perform her "sexy moves." It has been hard to set the brakes on that one.

Jenny Wykstra, a registered nurse from West Jordan, has figured out a way to help guide her three children without just saying something is bad or wrong.

She watches TV with her teens, 15, 14 and 13. And she pays attention to what they are looking at on the computer. When something sets off the alarm bells in her brain — and it happens a lot — she asks them questions.

"Wow, check out that girl's outfit. What do you think of it?"

She's genuinely interested, she says. But she's also guiding them through a process of analyzing things critically. "What do you think they're trying to sell?" she asks when a model runs her fingers through her luxurious hair for a shampoo commercial. "Is it just shampoo?"

And Wykstra is careful not to say no to everything. "I pick my battles."

So it's no to tattoos and piercings, but she always provides the "why," too. She is willing to bend on hair styles, for example. Other things, like music videos, are case-by-case.

Jennifer Stevens Aubrey's two boys, 5 and 8, get no more than one hour of screen time a day.

"We control content and we control the time," says Aubrey, a professor at the University of Missouri.

They recently went on a car trip and relaxed the rules about video and TV time. She noticed a big difference. "The boys were dazed."

She has also reached a compromise with her oldest, who loves video games. While he can't play for more than an hour, he is allowed to program his own games. "He feels like he gets what he wants, and I feel like I am getting what I want."

These two parents are using skills Levin, the professor and researcher, talks about in her book "So Sexy So Soon" (see box).

"Parents need skills they didn't need in the past — they need more skills than they ever needed before," Levin laments.

Thomsen thinks it's vital that a young girl hears that their fathers think she's a lovely, wonderful person. "That's feedback that will maybe make her feel strong and resistant to other influences."

And parents may have more sway than they think.

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