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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sexualising our children isn't funny

Recently on Facebook, someone from the US posted an outraged reaction to a children's clothing store that was selling g-strings and crotchless undies in children's sizes.  Today in Australia, we have K Mart pulling a range of children's undies with sexualised messages ("Call me!"  "I love rich boys!") off their shelves, after similar outrage from responsible parents.

WHAT are people THINKING when they design and make this garbage and then try to sell it to children?

The US incident was rationalised (if, indeed, you CAN rationalise something that tacky and poorly judged) as an attempt by pedophiles to infiltrate the children's clothing market- something of an extreme view without evidence.  I thought that was drawing a little bit of a long bow.

I think it's bigger, more worrying and less overtly criminal than that.  I think that this is a creeping malaise that's got under our radar, through

(1) our failure to deal with our own personal insecurity, and

(2) our acceptance of other people's 'expert' bad decisions about what's appropriate for children.

Let me explain that.

First, to insecurity.  There's that desperate desire to pass off our own children's inappropriate behaviour as 'cute' or 'funny'.  That's all about fear of judgment, I think; if our child says or does something sexually dodgy in public, some of us are very keen to let it slide under the radar with a positive label.  It's much less embarrassing for us that way. And we don't want to seem like a party pooper if someone laughs; it's really hard to take a moral stand in a social setting.

It's even harder when one of our relatives or friends is egging the child on to copy their own bad behaviour. (Is this sounding familiar to anyone?)  We are caught, then, between confronting our relative or friend- which might risk the relationship and invite sustained conflict- and laughing it off.

Laughter is a lot easier.

Take Dylan, for example. Dylan's dad had been brought up in a setting where verbal abuse and harassment of women was normal behaviour; he regularly had violent rows with Dylan's mother, often culminating in fisticuffs.  Dylan's dad thought it was okay to walk along the street asking random female strangers to 'show us your tits', and when Dylan started to copy him he roared laughing and pointed out other women to ask.

Naturally, Dylan (aged 4) eventually started to ask female peers at preschool to 'show us your tits', expecting laughter and positive attention as a response.

Yes, that's appalling parenting; I don't need to spell that one out for you.  But what was Dylan's mum doing while this was going on?

She was stoking up her belief that her life, complete with constant abuse, was okay.  The idea of challenging her violent partner would have been terrifying.  Her personal insecurity- that this was the life and the atmosphere that she deserved- was impacting terribly on her child, but she was literally on a hiding to nothing if she confronted her partner about it. Leave? With two kids under 5? Much too hard.

It's so important that we work on ourselves as well as working on our children.  So many of our children's problems can be traced back to our own problems that we've been avoiding confronting.

I'm no exception! I am not blaming or preaching! I learnt this fact through sending my child to a counsellor when I was concerned about his bolshie attitude, when he was around age 8.  What a wonderful woman; she had one session with him, then called us in and pointed out that in 90% of cases, including this one, the child didn't have a problem- the adults did, and we'd do better to book ourselves in. 

Ouch.  And how true her words proved; what a can of worms that opened!

So if you find yourself laughing and brushing it off when your child is behaving in an age-inappropriate or abusive way, maybe it would be wise to ask yourself why you're explaining away and protecting that inappropriate behaviour.  What's going on for you?

Another type of insecurity makes us buy inappropriately sexual clothes for a child.  Just because they're on the shelves, just because they're like what some singer wore in a video clip, just because your child's peers are supposedly wearing the same things, doesn't mean you have to cave in. 

But if you don't cave in, then you have to confront the fact that you are the child's parent, not the child's friend, and be prepared to take some flack.  You may have to reassess what music clips, TV shows or cartoons you let your child see at home, which might mean a battle with an older sibling.  These are significant challenges.

It's a lot easier to just say yes, and let your child pretend that they're older than their actual emotional age.  This isn't about chronological age.  It's about what feelings they understand, and what unwelcome behaviours of other people they can manage effectively.

Then there's bad decisions of others, who we may regard as experts, on what's age-appropriate.  I can think of no better example than dance class.

Maybe I'm just a musty old dinosaur, but hello, I don't think it's appropriate for babies and pre-teens to be thrusting their pelvis and chest at the audience, peeping seductively from behind their hair, dancing to clearly sexually-oriented songs, wearing hardly anything on their tiny pre-pubescent bodies as they do the above and slathering their faces in heavy, sexually charged make-up.

HOW is that presentation and body movement appropriate for a 5-year-old? An 8-year-old? A 10-year-old?

And yes, I've heard dance teachers exhorting pre-teens to 'look sexy'. They don't even know what sexy is, but they're being told it's desirable to look like that. What the??

Sure, the dance teacher will tell you it's essential technique to learn to isolate the pelvis and rib cage.  You'll regard her as the expert and cave in.  Some singing and drama teachers are just as bad; I still haven't recovered from seeing a 12-year-old get up on stage and sing 'Hanky Panky, Do You Want to Spank Me?', not to mention 'Big Spender' issuing from the tender lips of a 13-year-old.  What the?? But would you challenge a trained singing teacher's choice of song for your child? That takes guts, and a preparedness to be derided for your trouble.

Sorry, but I think it's time for stage mums to grow a backbone about this.  Get a grip. Get a perspective. It is NOT okay to sexualise your daughter just to win prizes and 'get ahead'.

(Please don't start me on beauty pageants.)

Some parents are clearly living through their children when they allow this sort of thing.  Maybe they've forgotten the context of that age group; these children don't have relationship experience, and I'm sure even the most pushy stage mum doesn't actually WANT a pre-teen to have relationship experience- yet they let them be taught to dance and sing about relationships- often barely-concealed sexual relationships. (Do you want to spank me? Pardon?)

Think about it.  Are you really surprised that someone thought it was okay to make trashy underwear for children? (Okay, I take the point about the crotchless undies, but some leotards are just a g-string with a top attached, and they wear them with flesh-coloured tights- what is THAT about for a 6-year-old, please?)

Sexualising our children isn't about some pervert slipping something inappropriate into the racks at a chain store. It's about our whole society and what we allow to be done to and by our children.  It's about where we all draw the line, and how strong we're prepared to be, and how ready we are to be called a prude for letting a child be a child.

How old is your child, emotionally?  Think about it.


  1. Very well said Aunt Annie, I don't think I'm in the in-laws good books anymore, but at least I am proud of myself for always making the hard choices and standing up for my children's rights to be who they wish to be and not what society is trying to push them into being.

  2. Thank you!! Sometimes it flat-out difficult to find clothes for my daughter that I consider appropriate for her age. She's only 4 and taller than most kindergartners... we're already shopping in the girls section for her (as opposed to the little girl/toddler section). Ugh... I want my little girl to dress like a little girl. That's a big reason why I'm learning to sew!

    And, I don't even want to think about dance class....

  3. AND applause for that lady!

    Sewing is a great idea- do share what you learn with your daughter, won't you? That's one of the things my mother taught me at an early age, and it's a great way to express creativity and independence.

    As for dance class- just be careful what classes you choose. Sit in on the class before you join her up. Dancing is wonderful for children, but often- especially if you get a young 'student' teacher- the teacher will have no concept of appropriateness for this age group, just recycling what she's learnt herself.

  4. I mostly agree but I think in parts you are overthinking it. Our capitalist system (esp in America) requires economic growth, year on year. That means that continuing to sell the same things to the same people year after year isn't enough. The capitalist economy is constantly seeking out new markets for new products which nobody imagined they needed a few years ago and children are ripe for the picking. I agree though, that parents need to get a backbone. When children whine and beg for something they saw on tv it's just a game: they keep asking, you keep saying no, then they feel safe and secure with solid boundaries.

  5. Interesting response, Kat- and doubtless what you say about the capitalist system is true.

    But clearly we come from very different ethico-political viewpoints. My view is that the capitalist system is deeply flawed, and in this instance (and many others) is letting our children down. Profiting from providing sexually loaded clothing to children is NOT excusable by blathering about profit margins.

    Economic growth is, despite what the multinationals tell us, ultimately less important than children. It's merely an inanimate and selfish monster that has consumed the welfare of the 99% in the name of 'progress', which concept can be loosely defined as 'raising the 1%'s salaries by aggressive advertising and sale of ever-worse product for ever-higher prices'.

    And personally, I would rather over-think than under-think when it comes to the welfare of children.

  6. I used to babysit for a family that let their little girle (ages 2 and 4) watch music videos where nearly naked women writhed around in very sexual ways... Lady Gaga was one of them but there were even worse ones. It made me feel disgusted, but the mother thought I was just being an old lady about it. :[ Children are only children for a short amount of time, and we should protect that time for as long as we can, instead of pushing them to act like teenagers from the time they can walk!

  7. Angel, you're so right. So often people will shout you down and insult you for swimming against the tide, but that's our job sometimes as parents.


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