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Too Sexy, Too Soon

Everywhere you look, kids are dressing and acting like adults. Here's how you can slow them down.

By Salley Shannon, Photo by Danielle Gitkin

The Truth About Kids
sexy teenager
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Danielle Gitkin
Photo by Danielle Gitkin

Alaena Punzi is determined. She wants to shave her legs, wear makeup, and get her eyebrows waxed. Her fashion tastes tend toward miniskirts and trendy tees. None of this would be a terribly big deal -- except that Alaena is only 10. "She's like I was at 16," says her frustrated mother, Beth Punzi, of Little Silver, New Jersey. "This stuff wasn't even on my radar when I was her age."

Is 10 the new 20? It sure seems so. It's no news that kids have to pull away from us, experiment, even mess up. But there's something going on today that is new, different, and alarming. Kids are being oversexualized -- in the way they dress, behave, and talk -- well before they've had a chance to get a sense of who they are as individuals. "Kids are growing up so fast that their teen years are being missed entirely," says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know (Jossey-Bass).

One reason is in-your-face obvious: the omnipresent ads, television, music, and videos blasting a "you have to be sexy to be popular" message. Kids are taking in the hype before they really understand what "being sexy" means, says psychologist Susan Linn, EdD, cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of Consuming Kids (Anchor).

But there's another reason our kids' lives are speeding up this way: We're allowing it. "Adults are giving in," says Borba. "Moms and dads are hitting the snooze control when the alarms go off." What may seem like harmless playacting actually has serious consequences. "Instead of trying out a range of new things and building confidence that way, kids are borrowing identities from celebrities," says Borba. "They're racing into adulthood before they've learned to feel safe about who they are."

The ability to form solid connections with others, so important to overall happiness, is also suffering: "Teens are hooking up and having one-night stands and not developing relationships," says Borba. "One of the reasons is they're seeing so much sex everywhere." As a consequence, the far deeper importance of intimacy in human relationships is lost.

We can't pull our kids out of the world they live in. They'll be tempted by the lingerie, the makeup, the out-there screen savers, the grinding on the dance floor. But there are specific ways to equip them to deal with the pressures and to make sure that they stay kids. Take a look at what may be happening in your child's life and what you can do.

The Stats

Brain Gap?

Sometimes we think kids are more savvy than they are, because they often pretend to know more than they really do, says Elaine B. Kaplan, PhD, associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Don't be surprised if your child doesn't see the connection between dressing provocatively, sexy dancing and body language, and actually having sex and a sexual relationship. "The latest studies show that a teen's brain is not developed enough to understand the consequences of his actions until he's well into his 20s," says Kaplan.

Common Age-Inappropriate Behaviors 1. Your son buys a T-shirt with a sexual image or message on it

Where he's coming from: He may be trying to impress his male peers and feel more macho. "Boys are under tremendous pressure, not only from the media but also the adults in their lives, to seek attention from girls," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads (Crown). Also, says Borba, "Insecure boys are feeling they have to wear these slogans to prove their masculinity." If the innuendo has an aggressive overtone, he may be expressing anger the only way he can think of.

What to do: Especially if he's on the younger side, make sure he totally "gets" what his shirt is saying. Calmly tell him that he can't wear the shirt; it's offensive and inappropriate. Explain how the shirt may create an incorrect impression of who he is and what he thinks.

If you believe he's compensating for insecurity, encourage his healthy passions -- an interest in music or sports, maybe -- where he can learn who he is without the raunchy T-shirts. And teach him to express feelings appropriately. When you're watching a TV show or the news, ask, "How would you feel if that happened to you?" Talk at dinner about issues like the war in Iraq and drinking and driving laws. (It's fine if you don't all agree.)

2. Your tween daughter wants to shave her legs and tweeze her eyebrows

Where she's coming from: It's tough for her to keep up with her changing body, tougher still when she's worried about unwanted hair. Tween years are prime time for teasing -- maybe somebody told her, "You've got man legs."

What to do: This is an area where you can ease up. "Young teen girls are terribly self-critical," notes Jill McLean Taylor, EdD, associate professor of women's studies at Simmons College in Boston. "Removing one cause of self-criticism -- like 'I hate my hairy legs' or 'I can't stand my bushy eyebrows' -- may make sense." At the same time, address your daughter's budding identity by mentioning her talents. "We internalize the messages about ourselves that we hear over and over," says Lisa Machoian, EdD, author of The Disappearing Girl (Plume). Make sure she hears plenty of positive ones.

3. Your son downloads a sexually crude screen saver

Where he's coming from: Hormones are definitely involved. "But it's more than that," says Wiseman. "It's about claiming that he belongs in Boy World."

What to do: The minute you discover the screen saver, calmly but firmly have him change it. (No moralizing, no histrionics. They'll put him on the defensive and block communication.) Then talk with him about objectifying women -- explain how sexy photos of women show that they have only one thing to offer, that they aren't to be taken seriously. It would be great if his dad could have this discussion with him.

Also, if he's younger than 15, be aware that he may be an early developer, says Malinda Jo Muzi, author of Your Kids, Their Lives (Pink Roses). It's the early developers who tend to have sex while in high school (statistically, about half do). Early bloomer or not, your son should know about birth control and STDs. "Giving him guidance doesn't mean offering him permission," Muzi says. Remember that kids do listen to their parents, even when they seem to be ignoring them. Telling him how to stay safe may increase the odds that he'll behave responsibly.

4. Your tween daughter comes home from school wearing mascara, liner, the works

Where she's coming from: She's trying to look older, like a big sister, a girl at school, or a teen star. She may also want to get in with a more popular group of girls.

What to do: "Call the parents of your child's friends and ask what their rules are," says Taylor. If a group of moms bands together and agrees that makeup on school days won't be the norm until seventh or eighth grade, the rule will be easier to enforce. You might also see if her school has a policy about wearing makeup.

In the meantime, explain that looking older can affect her reputation in ways she might not expect. Too much makeup sends a red flag not only to boys but also to adults. "There goes her healthy girl image," says Borba. "And reputations are a really tough thing to correct."

5. You come early to pick up your kid at a dance and see kids off in the corners grinding

Where they're coming from: Raging hormones and not enough supervision. Or worse, adults who think it's cute.

What to do: Next time call ahead to make sure the chaperones have clear standards and a plan for enforcing them. You should also know the parents of your kids' friends well enough to make sure you're on the same wavelength about partying and other teen behaviors.

Ask your teen what he or she thought about the dancing -- it's a great way to get into a conversation about sexuality and your hopes for your teen's future relationships. Your child should also have an easy exit strategy for an out-of-control gathering. "Develop a code phrase like 'Mom, I've got a headache' or 'I feel like I'm gonna barf' for your kid to use when he or she wants to be picked up right away but doesn't want peers to know why," suggests Borba.

6. Lately when you go shopping, your daughter has been begging for low-rise jeans, thongs. and push-up bras

Where she's coming from: The older the tween or teen girl, the more important dressing like her friends and "matching" them is, says Machoian. So if friends are going for the edgy fashions, your daughter will have trouble resisting. "From about fifth grade on, if you don't have the right clothes, you're scorned. And for kids in this age group, nothing is as important to psychological health as having friends."

There's a simpler factor at play, too. "When a girl's body is developing, it's like when you drive your first car," says Wiseman. "You want to see what it can do and how people react. You want to experiment."

What to do: "Have her show you pictures of clothes she likes," says Wiseman. "Then compromise on the items you can live with and veto the ones you can't."

If she's young enough that you're still shopping with her, and you think something she wants is too tight or too revealing, calmly say, "Let's try it in a bigger size and maybe we can buy it." Or "We'll keep looking until we find something similar we both like." If shopping trips are becoming a nightmare, consider a mom-swap -- you go with a friend's daughter, she goes with yours. (Obviously the other mom should share your standards.)

The most important thing you can do, though, is use your daughter's fashion experiments as opportunities for deeper discussions. "If your daughter's on her way out the door in an outfit you think is too tight or revealing," says Wiseman, "send her upstairs to change. Then say, 'These are my rules, but I realize you could find a way to break them. Just remember that I might find out. Not only will there be consequences for disobeying, but I will be horribly disappointed if you've betrayed the values of our family.'"

Also tell her to observe how sexy clothes make her feel and act. "Ask her to notice if her behavior matches what she's wearing," says Wiseman. Talk with her about it later, staying calm even if she says she likes how it makes her feel. Being open to hearing about her experience boosts your credibility. And helping her think things through may reinforce what you want her to learn.

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