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Q & A: Raising kids in a sexualized society

The authors of the book “So Sexy So Soon,” Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne, answer questions about how today's sexualized culture affects kids as young as 7 years old, and they offer tips on how parents can address this with their children.

Q: Hasn’t the “sex sells” mantra in advertising been around for a long time? Why is it a particularly important issue nowadays?
A: Although it is true that sex has been used to sell products for a very long time, the sexual images these days are far more graphic and pornographic than ever before. Sexual images are also used to target younger and younger children, and we are seeing the harmful results in their behavior. 

Q: You say the “sexualization of childhood” affects boys, as well as girls, negatively. Can you expand on this?
A: Boys learn to see girls as objects and judge and value them by how they look and how “sexy” they are. And boys are taught to conform to a very narrow definition of masculinity — being tough and invulnerable and aggressive. This can make it very difficult for boys to become men capable of having positive, caring, and connected relationships. This is a very high price to pay.

Q:  Among girls, self-esteem is so tied to looking and dressing “sexy.” How can parents help their daughters feel good about themselves while setting rules for dress/makeup that are age-appropriate?

A:
First, it is very important for parents to set rules for dress/makeup that are age-appropriate. Let children be children — let's not rush them into adulthood. There's no reason for 5-year-old girls to have makeover parties! We can help our girls develop a wide range of ways to feel good about themselves that go way beyond how they look. We can encourage them to use their bodies in healthy ways, such as in sports and play — so they learn to love and appreciate their bodies for what they can do, not just how decorative they are.

Q:  The trend among teens of “hooking up” seems to be the norm. Is that really the case, and what is the problem with this?

A: From our interviews and research, “hooking up” does seem to be the norm and it seems to be occurring at younger and younger ages. This casual approach to sex encourages tweens and teens to see each other as objects to be used and discarded. When youth engage in sex primarily outside of caring relationships, they lose the opportunity to learn about intimacy and authentic connection.

Q:  How do parents really know what’s going on in their teens’ sexual lives? How do they encourage healthy relationships when everything around the teens encourages the opposite?
A: The best way for parents to know what is going on in their teens' sexual lives is to have begun the conversation years before. When children learn at a very early age that it is safe to ask any question and raise any concern and when they know their parents will answer these questions honestly and respectfully, they are much more likely to confide in their parents when they are teens. These conversations shouldn’t be just about sex, of course, but rather about a whole range of topics — everything that concerns and interests children. 

It is never too late to begin, however. Parents can say to their teens that they wish they'd begun the conversation earlier but they are open to talking about anything and everything now. This doesn't mean “The Talk” — it means many conversations, including brief ones, over time. These conversations should be about what constitutes a healthy relationship as well as about sex. 

Of course, we should also do our best to model healthy relationships with our children, our partners, and with others in our lives. 

Q:  When should parents start addressing issues of sexuality with their kids? Is there a “too young” or “too soon”?
A: Actually, we need to begin when children are young — even at birth as we help babies feel good and experience pleasure from their bodies (which is not just about sex, of course). It is never “too young” or “too soon.” Children often ask questions, but parents also need to be proactive and create openings by commenting on things they notice. The information given should be age-appropriate, of course, and respectful of the needs of the child. And it should grow out of conversations rather than being conveyed as a lecture. What’s most important is establishing an ongoing, safe relationship with our children when they are young so that they feel safe asking about the big issues when they arise.

Q:  How do parents protect their children from sexualized images without sheltering them too much or being overbearing?
A: Read our book! There is no simple answer to this question — no one formula for “getting it right.” But there are many things parents can do to make it a whole lot better, and “So Sexy So Soon” gives lots of ideas and tips for the many kinds of situations that may arise.

We can filter out many of the images but certainly not all. As always, it is important to have conversations with children about the images they see (which often are very disturbing to young children) and to be open to their concerns and questions.

We also should be teaching media literacy in our schools — teaching our children to be critical viewers — so that the burden isn't entirely on parents.

Q:  What is the most common question you get from parents, and how do you answer it?

A: We constantly hear from parents that they are aware that sexualization is a problem and that they encounter it even with their very young children. But many feel powerless to stem the tide, in spite of all their efforts. So the most common question is “What can I do?” We acknowledge that parenting is more difficult than ever these days and that no one does it perfectly (including us!). But there are many things we can do to make things better.

Of course, this is what our entire book is about and we can't condense it here. It's important to become aware of the problem and to understand why it is occurring now (for example, to understand the relationship of sexualization to marketing). Society shouldn’t be making it more difficult for parents to do their job at every turn. It is important to take action, both individually and collectively, to make a better world for our children and for all children.  

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