Magazines, television and music today are all focused on bodies. Thin, young, and beautiful bodies supposedly equate to more money, power, and fame. Our youth has never had a narrower concept of beauty, nor have they ever had the pressure of being able to pose for a photo and have millions view it from a social network. Our young people’s minds aren’t fully developed until the age of 22–and yet they can have plastic surgery, Botox, and other cosmetic procedures at 6 (with their parent’s blessings). On the front of Vogue magazine months ago there was a photo of a 10-year-old girl in fish-net stockings, red lipstick, a short dress, and red high heels lounging on a sofa. The title had something to do with the new version of beauty.
What in the world is going on? Do men/women really sexually desire a 10-year-old dressed up like a 25-year-old? If so, what are the personality traits of these perpetrators, and how did they become so powerful that the advertisers are now boasting padded bras for 8 and 9-year-olds and clothes that reveal more than most 30-year-old women would be embarrassed to show?
The most distressing part of all of this is that when a society sexualizes their children there is no going back to childhood for the child. You cannot take a 6-year-old and make them a beauty queen, shower them with photographs and accolades and then tell them, “Okay, it’s over, you can go back to being a normal little girl now.” Once a child is forced into that “media driven craze”, there is no way to redeem the innocence stolen from their childhood.
Parents who “fix” their children cosmetically have inadvertently told their child, “You have a problem with your appearance and you aren’t okay.” If we fix it, you will be more accepted. Eight times out of ten when I see a child who is sent to me prior to plastic surgery, and I meet the mother, it is she who needs the therapy. With some issues, cosmetic surgery is appropriate for a child. I have seen birth defects, burns and other accidents that require cosmetic surgery for physical and emotional healing. This is not the sort of cosmetic surgery to which I am referring.
Many parents tell me that their 3, 4, 5, and 6-year-olds want to be in pictures, movies and magazines. I don’t buy it. I think children at that age must be protected, guided and mostly loved. I am convinced that it is the parent who wants the social accolades for having a beautiful, talented, and/or charismatic child. No 3 to 6-year-old has the mind development to say, “I am sure what I want to do with the next ten years of my life; help me be a model, Mommy.” Most likely a wise parent would say to that hypothetical and highly unlikely statement, “You are beautiful inside and out, but too young, let’s see how else you can use your talents to further your interests while giving back to others.” Kids want their parent’s approval most of all. It is more likely that if they want to be “beautiful”, it is because mom/dad wants them to be “beautiful”.
There are things you can practice in your home to protect your child’s childhood. It will take strong boundaries on your part as the parent, because the media has seeped into every nook and cranny of our homes. It is coming via iPhones, the Internet, Facebook, and television. The only way to avoid its influence is to limit its access.
Don’t let your child have an account on a social network until they are thirteen years of age. Earlier than that is too early. I am an expert for Truecare.net and they monitor social networks for parents. The number of suicides each year with children being cyber-bullied or sexualized on these networks is staggering.
Have a boundary of off times with all phones, computers, and TV. Dinner is one of those off times, as is a specific time each night. The phones are stored in mom’s/dad’s bedroom.
Know to whom your child is talking on the Internet. This is more easily accomplished when your computer has a large screen and is placed in a central location within the home.
Make healthy living part of your family activities. Have a set family day each week, and make that a time for the whole family to engage in an activity together.
Go clothes shopping with your children and guide them. When they want to wear something inappropriate say “NO.” That is your right and duty as a parent.
Eating healthy is important. As the parent, you must do as you say. If you say no fast food, then no one–including you–eats fast food. If you are concerned with your child’s weight, it should be dealt with the same way as other health matters are addressed. Gentle correction when you are alone with your child is all that is necessary. Children grow at different rates; respect that.
Make-up is not necessary, especially before the teen years. If you have a young child who insists on wearing cosmetics prior to that, talk to them so you can understand the feelings that are causing her to feel like she needs to look better or different.
Cell phones are a privilege and may be a necessity with single parents’ schedules. However, when you give your child a cell phone, make sure you also give them rules with consequences if the rules are broken.
Limiting types of music in your home is important, just as limiting TV times and networks in your home. If you aren’t in the home to monitor it, then make it impossible for your child to be exposed. (I never had cable in my home until my daughters left for college.)
Make it mandatory that at least three days each week you will eat dinner with your children. Make this a meal that is fun, stress-free, and enjoyable. A blessing prior to this meal helps “seal the deal.”
The one thing we give our children is their memories of childhood. They pass it on to the next generation. When I listen to patients and I ask them about their life, their story of what their parents deemed valuable is told very clearly by these memories. What your daughters and sons become is between them and God.
What you give them in childhood is up to you. Help create a place for your children to grow up safe. Let them pretend to be astronauts, scientists, actresses, or whatever. There will be time enough for them to have dates, limos, parties, and beauty pageants, but there will never be another time for them to be a kid.
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever. Read more about the book at www.StartTalkingBook.com and more about Rapini at www.maryjorapini.com.