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Girls Growing Up Too Fast

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What's a Parent to Do?

Forget about overreacting. Sending your daughter to school in overalls, clutching your old prairie-skirted Holly Hobbie doll is like putting a giant "L" on her forehead and a "kick me" sign on her back. The idea is to help her live in the real world while preserving her innocence and honoring your family's morals. Try these tactics:

  • Cut back on the TV consumption. Her shows, your shows -- just watch less. A 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report found that the proportion of programs with sexual content rose from 54 percent to 70 percent between 1998 and 2005. And learn what the mysterious ratings at the start of kids' shows mean. Stuff tagged TV-Y or TV-G is the tamest. Other ratings require you to make a judgment call. You can get the scoop at www.fcc.gov/parents/parent_guide.html.
  • Teach your daughter how to think like a critic. When she does watch, try to join her. "That way when something questionable pops up, you can point it out," recommends Durham. Levin suggests regularly exposing the ridiculous or unrealistic sides of on-screen scenarios. For instance, you could try, "Don't you wonder how London gets her homework done when she spends so much time in front of the mirror?"
  • Monitor Web choices. Just because a Web site is linked to a TV show doesn't mean it's healthy or wholesome. Try bookmarking a few quality sites like pbskids.org or starfall.com, which are chockablock with fun learning games. "Be picky," says Maria Bailey, founder of bluesuitmom.com, an advice site for employed moms. "Thirty four percent of children will visit some kind of social networking or vitual-world Web site this year." One new option about to be launched is the Precious Girls Club social network, where girls can earn points for engaging in kind behavior (preciousgirlsclub.com).
  • Promote other kinds of idols. Show your daughter women she can admire for what they do, not for how they look, advises Richard Gallagher, PhD, director of the Parenting Institute at the Child Study Center of New York University. You could take her to a community musical and afterward meet the actress whose singing she loved. Or how about attending a local women's basketball game, where she can give the high-scorer postgame congratulations? And even if you aren't a fan of every female on the political scene, point out how cool it is that women are so prominent there.
  • Help her explore her talents and interests. Whether it's tennis or chess, being good at something gives girls confidence. "Sports especially are great," advises Levin. "They help girls value their bodies for what they're able to do, not for how pretty they look."
  • Hold the line on makeup and glittery clothes. "It's not enough to just say no," warns Levin. "Your daughter will be exposed to these things anyway, and if you clamp down entirely, it'll only set the stage for her to rebel later on." Instead she suggests moderation. If your daughter begs for a cropped top, for instance, layer it over a longer tee or tank, or let her wear it only at home.
  • Mix up her peer group. Invite over a kid from another class in her grade, or sign her up for an activity that isn't school-based (such as karate or art). Spending time with other kids, other ideas, other ways of doing things widens a girl's world and reduces the pressure on her to follow the crowd.
  • Guide the gift-giving. Tell grandparents and other relatives that you're trying to hold back on the sexy stuff, says Levin. Ideally, they'll shop more sensitively.

Personally, I'm taking all of this advice and using it with my daughter. I've been questioning what we're seeing on her favorite TV shows, as well as her fervent desire, sympathetic though I may feel, to emulate her fashion-forward classmates right down to their underwear.

And in case you're wondering whether I got her that bra, I'll admit I thought about it. But then I said no. "That's for when you're older," I told her. Then I took her to our community rec department and signed her up for our town's soccer league. Five weeks later I stood at the edge of a field, screaming like crazy as she scored her very first goal.

That, not a bra, is the kind of support young girls really need.

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