A 6-year-old asks at dinner, "What's a blow job?" Four-year-old girls mimic Britney Spears's pelvis-grinding gyrations. Eight-year-old girls plot how to manipulate their parents to buy them "sexy" midriff-baring tops. And fifth-grade boys tell their teacher they know you don't have to like a person to have sex with them because they've seen pornography on the Internet.
After I read these real-life examples of the sexualization of childhood in So Sexy So Soon, the new book by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne, I felt nauseated. I have a rising kindergartner whose idea of being a big girl means going without sippy cups, and I'm nowhere near prepared for dealing with the blow job question at the dinner table. So I called up Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, to find out what on Earth is going on. Here are excerpts of our conversation:
The examples you give in your book are so distressing. Is life really like that for young children?
Yes, unfortunately. I don't want to terrify you about what's going to come but, on the other hand, it will help you be prepared.
What has happened? This is so different from our childhoods, when we didn't start thinking about this stuff until middle school. I just saw an ad for high heels for 6-month-olds. Puh-lease.
Deregulation of television in the 1980s led to much more violent programming for young boys, and girls being channeled more to what's pretty and sweet. Since then, we've seen increasing escalation of gender divisions, of boys being told they have to be macho and ready to fight, and girls not just being pretty and sweet but being sexy and sexualized. Even Barbie now has bigger, sexier lips to compete with the Bratz dolls.
When I look at a toy that upset me 10 years ago, I think, "Oh boy, I wish we had that now." There is a female professional wrestling toy that comes to mind. Back then, she had on a very skimpy dress and she was holding a cigarette. It was marketed to children. Her breasts got bigger every year after that, the neckline got lower. Seven years later, I got a figure of a professional wrestler in a black leather bra and shorts. The bra was unzipped; she carried a whip. It was an image out of S&M pornography. I say give me back the earlier toy.
But you say that just saying no, banning Bratz dolls and violent superheroes, isn't going to work. Why not?
Industry always says it's the parents' job to say what's appropriate, that if they didn't let their kids watch it, they wouldn't see it. But no matter how much parents say no, there are things that are going to get in that they don't want—at another person's house, on the playground, or through older kids.
Secondly, if you just say no, your kids are not going to know how to deal with these things. They begin to see you as the enemy. The single most important thing is to stay connected. If a child says, "I really, really, really need to have this," say: "Tell me why you think so, and let me tell you why I think that's a bad idea. Let's think about a way how you can have it that will deal with what worries me."
You're talking about letting kids see stuff you don't think is appropriate.
Let me give you an example with my own son, who's now in his middle 20s. We did not go see the violent cartoon movies, and he was in first or second grade when the Ninja Turtle movie was coming out. Everyone in the class had seen the movie except for two girls and my son. We agreed that we would go to see the movie together. Afterwards, a friend of mine asked Eli how the movie was. He said, "My Mom came out and had a stomachache and couldn't eat dinner, but I loved it."
What was so important about that is that it established that he had a voice, and that I had different ideas than him and he could hear them and they could get into his head and they could influence him. Had I just said no, it would set him up at school in a way that would have alienated him from me, and I knew that at some point he was going to have to live in this world.
Kids have two boxes in their heads—the pop culture box and then the family-school-societal-culture box, which is all the things we hope kids will learn to be good, contributing members of society. The boxes now are pretty much disconnected. I hope this will help parents realize that they have to see what's in their children's world. They have to connect the boxes. Talk to your kids about the media in their lives. Watch those shows or games and ask your children questions about them. If you're not sure if they're appropriate, watch them yourself first.
What do we parents say if our 7-year-old says she hates her body and wants to be sexy? That's another distressing real-life example from your book.
You don't need to have the right answer. The important thing is to talk about it. If you say something is wrong, later you can say, "I have another idea." Or you can say, "Hmm, that's a good question. Let me think about it and we can talk about it tomorrow." There are ways you can regroup. Even if you say the wrong thing, it's better than saying nothing.
What else can parents do?
Work with others—talk to other parents about this and get your kids' school involved. Schools are at fault for saying that this is the parents' job. Schools have to counteract the pop culture lessons kids are learning and help them develop alternate views and skills. Parents can't do it themselves.
For six tips on combating the sexualization of childhood, click here.