Never Too Young to Be Sexy
Living with Children in Today’s Sexualized World
It has never been easy being a parent. But today, it has gotten even more difficult. A 2002 survey by an organization called Public Agenda found that 76 percent of parents felt it was a lot harder to raise children today than when they were growing up, and 47 percent reported that their biggest challenge was trying to protect their children from negative societal influences, including disturbing and confusing images, violence, and age-inappropriate messages appearing in the media.
How would you have answered this survey? Are you, too, having a hard time trying to protect your children from negative influences? Are you finding it difficult to set and enforce limits on the media that your children are exposed to—to determine how much, when, and what? As parents, you are often told that it’s your job to “just say no” to all of the inappropriate content out there, and that this will solve the problem. But just saying no won’t solve the problem, and anyway, you can’t say no to everything!
Instead, we simply have to deal with the popular culture in our children’s lives, often at the most unexpected times, in unforeseen ways, and whether we want to or not. This book is designed to help you do just that. And in order to be able to do so, the first order of business is to examine and recognize when and how the new sexualized childhood is influencing children from a young age.
Several recent books and news and research reports have expressed concern about today’s sexual attitudes and behavior of many adolescents, and increasingly even tweens (eight- to twelve-year- olds). These accounts often make it seem as if the behavior in question suddenly appears out of a vacuum when children enter high school (or middle school). Rarely do we hear about what was happening in the early years that paved the way for what is happening with teens.
There is a lot going on in children’s lives around issues of sexuality and sexiness that is important for the caring adults in their lives to recognize. The following stories from parents and teachers make it very clear that if we are to understand and deal with the sexualization of childhood, we must begin our efforts with very young children.
CRYING IN THE BATHTUB
Jennifer reported that one evening not long ago, her seven-year-old daughter Hannah began crying in the bathtub. Alarmed, Jennifer asked what was wrong. Hannah responded, “I’m fat! I’m fat! I want to be pretty like Isabelle—sexy like her! Then Judd would like me too!” Jennifer knew Isabelle, a very thin, very popular girl in Hannah’s class who wore “stylish” clothes that Jennifer thought were inappropriate for a seven-year-old. Jennifer put her hand on Hannah’s shoulder and said she liked Hannah’s body—it was a wonderful body for a seven-year-old and she certainly didn’t need to lose weight. But Hannah continued to cry and to say that she wanted to go on a diet. Jennifer felt uncertain about what to say or do next. In her view, Hannah had a normal body for a seven-year-old girl. Jennifer thought it must be abnormal for such a young child to be thinking about diets, let alone wanting boys to like her for being “pretty” and “sexy.” But, normal or not, Jennifer saw that Hannah was truly concerned and distressed, and she wanted to do something to help.
As Jennifer strove to understand Hannah’s outburst, she was tempted to put a lot of the blame on Hannah’s friends, who were becoming increasingly influential and important to her. Recently, Hannah had come home from a playdate talking about having had a fashion show with her friend’s Bratz dolls. Jennifer was concerned that when Hannah and her friends played together they often acted out going on “dates” and having weddings with their Barbie dolls, but she was truly horrified by the time they spent at other houses with Bratz dolls—by their name, their anorexic-looking bodies, their overt sexuality and hooker-like wardrobe, as well as by the focus on shopping and appearance as the point of the play. When she voiced her reservations about Hannah’s having the dolls, Hannah said that everyone else had them and that she loved playing with them at other children’s houses.
She and her friends liked dressing them up and having them go shopping and out on dates. Although Jennifer didn’t give in, she wasn’t sure what she would do when Hannah’s birthday arrived the following month. She was certain some other girls would give these dolls to Hannah as gifts. Even if Jennifer took them away, she knew Hannah would continue to play with them at her friends’ homes. Recently, Hannah had begun to nag about joining the Bratz website, an online community where kids can play and buy things for their Bratz dolls in cyberspace, along with other children who are logged on.
Deep down, however, Jennifer realized that what worried her most was where this interest in appearance, popularity, and sexiness would lead. If Hannah was dissatisfied with her body at the age of seven, she wondered how she might feel at thirteen. Jennifer had seen news stories about an increase in precocious sexual behavior among children and teens, and she knew that eating disorders were on the rise, even among little girls. Were Hannah’s tears about her body the first sign of such trouble for her? What was the relationship between concerns about body image and sexuality? And what did she mean by being “sexy” anyway? Knowing how high the stakes were, Jennifer felt almost desperate to find the right way to respond. But she was upset with herself for feeling unsure, even anxious, about knowing the right thing to say or do.
PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING GIRLS
Nora, a highly experienced kindergarten teacher, told us about an incident with a child that left her scrambling to figure out how to respond. In his daily school journal, five-year-old James had made a drawing of what looked to Nora like a woman, with long hair and bright red lips as well as big wavy circles on her chest that looked like breasts. Next to the drawing he had written the letter W over and over again. Nora asked him to tell her about his picture. She was caught off guard when James explained that his drawing was of “a professional wrestling girl with big boobies.”
“At first I thought he was trying to be fresh, to be a wise guy, but I caught myself before I reacted too harshly,” Nora reported. “I took a deep breath and tried to think through how to respond. I decided to start with a question.” (This is almost always a good way to start when you’re not quite sure what to say.) So Nora asked James what he knew about “wrestling girls.” He matter-of-factly replied with his eyes open wide, “I saw her on TV last night with my [big] brother, Brett. He was babysitting! He let me stay up late and watch with him! It’s a secret!” She was glad she had asked him the initial question about what he knew about wrestling girls, because his response helped her begin to get a handle on what was going on for James.
Nora recalled that it was the look on James’s face when he answered her, of both bravado and worry at the same time, that left her confused and concerned. She knew that James’s parents were quite clear about limiting the amount and kind of media in his life. She knew how much James looked up to fourteen-year-old Brett and admired everything he did. She was pretty sure that James’s parents would be distressed if they knew about Brett and James’s secret! She was also pretty sure that if James shared the secret with her, he was asking for something, but what exactly was it?
Rather than try to work it all out with James at that moment, Nora decided to buy some time to think about what to do. So she said to James, “It sounds like you saw things you hadn’t seen before... things that were not really for kindergartners. I’m glad you told me about your secret.” James smiled and put his journal away.
After the event was over, there was a lot for Nora to consider. Why did James decide to disclose the secret to her and do it through his daily journal? Why did he choose to focus on the breasts? Did he know that focusing on them could be seen as provocative to his teacher or have sexual connotations? After all, what signifies sex to an adult might mean something quite different to a five-year-old. Was James trying to use his drawing to brag and feel more grown up about his having seen this grown-?up program? Or could he have made his drawing because he needed someone to talk to about it when he knew he couldn’t reveal it to his parents because it was a secret? Was he testing Nora to see if she would get upset or angry, or looking to her to help him sort the experience out?
Nora began to think about the issue more broadly than just about James. If James drew his picture of the “professional wrestling girl” as a way of talking to an adult about something disturbing he saw on the screen, as Nora now thought he did, do other children also need such opportunities to process the graphic content they are seeing in media and popular culture? Well, then, whom are they talking to? How often do children end up seeing things their parents don’t want them to see and then learn not to talk to adults about it? And when they do experience the forbidden fruit, what does it teach them about honesty and deceit and about the nature of their relationship with the important adults in their lives?
Finally, Nora started to feel better about how she had responded to James and realized she had learned an important lesson for her future teaching: Whether they’re scared or want to feel grown-up and impress others with what they’ve seen, this is the kind of conversation with an adult that children often need in order to help them deal with the sex and violence they see. Furthermore, such conversations might also be used to teach children alternative lessons to what they’re learning from the screen.
But Nora didn’t leave it there. She began to think about what should happen beyond the classroom. What should the role of schools be in helping children (and their parents) deal with the sexualized media culture? How was this experience with James related to debates that were raging around the country about whether to teach sex education— and, if so, what kind and when? More particularly, did she have a responsibility to talk with James’s parents about the professional wrestling girl episode? If she did talk to them, would this upset James and make him feel he couldn’t trust teachers and other adults to help him deal with scary secrets next time? Or would speaking with the parents help them connect more positively with James so that it would be easier for him to use them next time, rather than his teacher, to talk about what he’d seen on TV?
Nora was aware of a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation report that found that many children spend more time involved with media than on anything else but sleeping. So why wasn’t media education part of the school curriculum? Why didn’t schools see that they have a vital role to play in helping to influence the lessons that media are teaching children? Was the push to teach the “basics” for standardized tests that came from the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” mandate crowding out content that children urgently needed to work on? If children didn’t have avenues to deal with their feelings about media content, what happened to these feelings? Did their involvement with the disturbing and confusing images and behaviors they saw distract them from giving their all to traditional schoolwork?
While there was not one right or easy answer to most of Nora’s questions, she realized that the increasing exposure of the children in her classroom to confusing sexual content was creating new challenges for her that she needed to take seriously. We need more teachers like Nora in today’s world!
“WHAT’S A BLOW JOB?”
Meghan recounted with obvious distress that her seven-year-old daughter, Eva, had come home from school the day before and asked, “Mom, what’s a blow job?” Meghan’s first impulse was to tell Eva that it wasn’t something for children, it was for adults, and to terminate the conversation then and there. But something about the earnest expression on Eva’s face made Meghan pause. “Stay calm, stay calm!” she told herself. Then she asked, “Where did you hear about blow jobs?” Eva replied that she heard about it at school. Meghan followed with, “What did you hear about it?” Eva responded, “It’s sex.” Meghan couldn’t imagine where to go next with the conversation.
Meghan had always tried to protect Eva from exposure to violence and sex in the media. But ever since Eva had entered a large elementary school with many children who were not as protected as Eva, Meghan felt she was increasingly losing her ability to control this exposure. This new episode left Meghan feeling that things were really out of control. She had been aware, with some degree of ambivalence, that she might need to talk with Eva about issues such as oral sex during the adolescent or even the preadolescent years. She had heard news reports about incidents of oral sex in high schools. She had read that several boys at a private school near Boston were expelled because a girl had performed oral sex on all of them in the locker room. More recently, a friend had told her that two girls at a bar mitzvah had performed oral sex on the bar mitzvah boy in a bathroom. She certainly was disturbed by these incidents, but she was utterly appalled that the subject had come up with Eva at age seven!
Meghan and her husband had talked about how they wanted to be open and comfortable with Eva when talking about sex. But they had expected Eva’s first questions to be about where babies come from, not this. This was simply not what they had had in mind! Should Meghan actually describe oral sex? What could this possibly mean to a seven-year-old? And how would her explanation affect Eva’s understanding about sex and relationships between caring adults, both short and long term? Meghan also didn’t know what to think about the children who had used the term “blow job” in Eva’s presence. Where were they getting this language? What did they know?