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Health & Parenting

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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...

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.

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.

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