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Little Girls Gone Wild: Why Daughters Are Acting Too Sexy, Too Soon

Push-up bras, pedicures, hip-hop dance classes: These are now the social currency of the under-10 set. What happened?

When to say no... and when to say nothing continued...

While it can seem like Katy Perry and her ilk are being beamed directly into kids' brains while they sleep, the culprit I heard cited over and over is television. Some parents take the tactic of watching shows with their kids - and offering play-by-play commentary. Kimberly Stelting of Olathe, KS, has been known to embarrass her daughters (12, 14, and 16) by giving matter-of-fact information about sexual content slipped into "family" TV shows. "I once had to explain the word douche! And when I was done, my daughter said she wished I hadn't," she reports. "But I just say, 'You wanted to watch the show; now we have to talk about what you saw.'"

For younger kids, some parents have taken it a step further and removed choice from the equation. Ann Friedman of Durango, CO, tried to get her 8-year-old to "stick to PBS, but she'd channel surf and end up watching Hannah Montana and iCarly." Ann started to notice a new attitude from Iris. "She'd put her hand on her hip and say, 'Mom,'" Ann says, making her voice drip with adolescent disgust. "And then I realized that's what those girls do." Now their TV viewing is all done via mom-approved DVD.

Keeping an eye on what they're doing shouldn't stop at the TV screen, either. Karen Mallow of Ancram, NY, told me her 13-year-old likes to try on outfits with her friends and take pictures like fashion models. One afternoon, as Karen perused the shots on her daughter's MacBook, she saw a few way-too-provocative poses one girl had struck on her daughter's bed. "I made her delete them," she says. "I said, 'Once this is on your computer, you could hit the wrong button. If this gets out, you don't know where it'll end up.'"

Point them in the right direction

This can start to sound like a lot of medicine-taking: monitoring every show a child watches, telling a girl over and over how unnatural Barbie's measurements are. And in fact, one tactic advertisers use is to paint parents as big spoilsports. "Companies employ developmental psychologists to craft their message and tell kids, particularly in the preteen years, 'You're in charge, you make it happen, this is your identity,'" says Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., a professor of education at Colby College in Maine and coauthor of Packaging Girlhood. "So when you say, 'No, bad, awful,' kids see it as you taking their fun and their choices away." Which, of course, makes the forbidden fruit that much more alluring.

Mikel Brown recommends trying to change the conversation to a positive one: "Invest the good stuff with a lot of energy and excitement, the way the media invest things with energy and excitement." Lisa Khakee, for example, bought her 7-year-old a set of Little House on the Prairie books, then, when that was a hit, found the DVDs - and ultimately got her daughter so worked up about prairie life that she dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder for Halloween, neatly sidestepping the racks of slutty-pirate-girl/jailbait-witch costumes.

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