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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.
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

  • 22 percent of kids 9 to 17 say, "I can hardly wait to be on my own."
  • 52 percent of tweens and teens feel pressured by classmates to dress a certain way.

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.