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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?

Point them in the right direction continued...

Encouraging girls to play sports is another way to get them focused on the strength of their bodies, not just on how they look. "I talk about it with my friends; sports give our daughters a sense of confidence and self-worth," says Laura Hohnhold of Evanston, IL, the mom of a 12-year-old who swims and plays softball.

Sports also create healthy common ground between girls and boys. Educators say they're seeing the end result of the all-blue-for-boys, all-pink-for-girls marketing trends: boys and girls who have a harder time playing together, which ultimately leaves both sexes lagging in academic and social development. Further, there's evidence that kids who play well with the opposite sex grow up to have more positive, long-lasting romantic relationships.

The key is not to sexualize those friendships, Orenstein says. A 5-year-old girl's friend who is a boy is not a boyfriend. Laughing about how cute they are and their impending marriage is a surefire way to embarrass the poor thing and send her running into the safety of making hot-pink sparkle jewelry with her girlfriends.

Her point leads to an important lesson in all of this: As counterintuitive as it may feel, sex is not the enemy. Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., a child development specialist in New Jersey, says we must be careful, in our zeal to shelter our daughters, not to make sex seem bad or scary: "We want girls to grow up and have full, responsible, passionate sexual relationships. That's why sexualization is so detrimental. If they're hurried along before they're ready, they can associate negative feelings with being sexual. The right time is great. But the wrong time really messes with their heads." So what's the right time? It's every parent's judgment call, Silverman says, but it's when a young woman has not only developed physically but also possesses the maturity to understand the message she sends with smoky eyeliner and a tight skirt - and to handle the reactions they elicit.

Protecting your daughter doesn't mean never talking about sex or never telling her she's beautiful. "It just can't be the only thing you find praise-worthy," says Silverman. "She's smart and interesting and funny - and she's pretty."

My daughter, Louisa, is beautiful to me, breathtakingly so. It was the first thing I said when she was born, and then I cried because I was so happy to see her. I still feel that way. Every morning, I'm just so delighted to see that little face, those strong, chubby limbs. We call her The Viking because she's so exuberant, so gung ho. The idea of her some day comparing herself to Cinderella, or Barbie, or some simpering teen queen on TV and finding herself lacking - too fat, too skinny, too loud, nose too big, lips too small - and trying to compensate with store-bought sexiness breaks my heart. I don't want anyone to take that light out of her heart or out of her eyes. My goal then, I suppose, is to teach her to see herself as I see her, and to love herself as I love her, as someone who already possesses everything she needs.

Originally published on January 25, 2011

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