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.