I remember one shopping expedition with my then-10-year-old daughter when I was taken aback by what was on offer in her size. The teeny-tiny belly tops and tight, low-cut jeans, in fashion at the time, just seemed too provocative for a girl her age. “But, Mom,” Annie said, “everyone’s wearing them!”
Kids grow up so fast, we often say. But these days, you can’t help but wonder if they’re growing up too fast. And it’s not just girls. It can feel like 10 is the new 15 whether you’re shopping for T-shirts or buying that CD your son wants for Christmas. Explicit talk about sex, profanity and violent images are part of music and movies pitched to increasingly younger kids. You’d like to somehow maintain your child’s interest in playing Lego or playing capture the flag for a little while longer, but it can seem like MTV or the latest episode of Gossip Girl has more appeal.
Is it possible — or even desirable — to protect childhood for our kids?
Yes, says Christopher Sturdy, a Toronto parent educator. “Childhood establishes the foundation for the value system kids will carry forward into adult life and parents are the most influential models for that.”
But it can be difficult. According to the website of the Media Awareness Network, “marketers are discovering there’s money to be made by treating tweens (whom they define as kids eight to 12) like teenagers.” That’s a problem, they say, because it exposes young kids to “potentially unhealthy messages about body image, sexuality, relationships and violence.”
In addition to pressures from outside, tweens don’t want to think of themselves as kids. And peers become important and influential. “You’re going to lose some control over what your kids are exposed to around this age,” says Barrie, Ont., psychologist and parenting writer Peter Marshall. “But don’t give up. You still have quite a bit of influence.”
Here are some ways to put on the brakes in the race to adulthood:
Spend time together Is there a passion you can share with your child? Whether it’s rock climbing or combing through vintage stores looking for funky fashions, kids benefit from emotional connection with their parents. They’ll also appreciate the fact that you support their interests. Sturdy encourages families to make sure there’s time for movie nights and family dinners.
Encourage unstructured play “We organize kids too much,” says Marshall. “The days of going to the park with your friends and organizing your own games are fading fast. Leave them to their own devices and kids will be kids — goofy, playful kids.”
Share your values As mass media become more important for this age group and kids are making their own choices about what they view, it’s vital that parents talk with their children about what they’re seeing and hearing. “If your daughter wants to watch Friends because it’s funny, let her know where you stand on the issue of casual sex,” says Marshall.
“Kids evaluate what they see in terms of their home environment, which is the most important determinant of their behaviour,” says Marshall. “Those who do act out what they see in media are usually doing so because of what they’re exposed to at home.”
Set limits There will be times when you just have to say no. “I don’t care that Grand Theft Auto (a video game involving rape and other forms of violence) isn’t likely to influence my kid’s behaviour,” says Marshall. “I’m not going to let him play it because I want to make a moral statement.” If you’re going to ban a game or a movie, do some research and provide an alternative your child will enjoy.
Finally, one more hint from Sturdy: “Don’t even think about starting a sentence with ‘When I was a kid….’ That just confirms to your offspring that you are, in fact, a dinosaur.”
Protecting your kids online
The computer and the Internet can be wonderful sources of facts and fun whether your child is researching a school project or experimenting with a filmmaking program. The danger, says parent educator Christopher Sturdy, is that kids are less active because they’re spending, on average, the equivalent of three to five years in front of a screen between the ages of three and 17.
Supervision is key. According to psychologist Peter Marshall, research has shown that “the majority of children have seen hard-core pornography by the end of public school and usually report that they found it disturbing.” Viewing graphic sexual material won’t turn a nine-year-old into a person who’s prematurely obsessed with sex, says Marshall. “It’s more likely to upset him.”
How can we control what our kids encounter online? Filters can be helpful, but Marshall says they’re not foolproof and they don’t replace supervision and setting rules about appropriate sites and sharing personal information. “Use the same skills you use in the physical environment,” says Marshall. That means talking about safety and making sure you know where they are.