In an article in the Wall Street Journal, the question is asked, “Why do we let our daughters dress like this?” Jennifer Moses talks about girls as young as 12 wearing full make-up and strapless dresses, then moving to even more provocative attire as they prepare for prom in high school. She proposes that the reason that mothers with adolescents girls allow, and even promote, sexy dressing is for a couple of reasons. One is that this is the first generation of mothers who grew up with birth control and thus were able to experiment with their sexuality without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps for these sexually experienced and adventurous middle-aged women, it’s now difficult to limit their own daughters’ sexual expression without admitting that, looking back, they are unhappy with the choices that they made. The writer mentions the fact that, of all the women she knows, not one says, “I wish I’d experimented more with my sexuality.”
The reporter also suggests that for some mothers, seeing their daughters get attention for their physical appearance is rewarding because they themselves are no longer receiving this kind of attention from men at large. Both of these lines of reasoning disturb me, as a psychology professional who works with hurting kids. And yet, I don’t doubt that she is right in her assessment, at least in some ways. In fact, I think she is asking some very important questions that parents need to be asking themselves. Mainly, “Why would I allow my daughter to present herself in such a sexualized way at this young age?” Is it just because she is pressuring you to allow it, or does it go deeper than that into your own insecurities and inability to comfortably deal with your own past?
I think every parent of both boys and girls needs to be asking themselves this type of question when they are struggling with setting boundaries. Here are some of the things that I recommend parents explore as they try to make decisions about what is and is not okay for their children:
- Ask yourself this question: What qualities do I want my child to have as an adult? I’ve asked this question to countless parents and the usual characteristics tend to be responsible, confident, independent, caring, able to build authentic relationships, and so forth. Not once, among hundreds of parents, has anyone ever yelled out “sexy.”
- Consider your own understanding of sexuality. For healthy sexuality, you want to encourage your child to view their sexual identity and desires in the context of their whole person. Sexuality is a component of who we are, not the main identifier. When you or your child begins to use their sexuality as the main way in which you express who you are, you are moving into a narrow, unhealthy way of thinking of yourself. See my post on Sexuality and the Whole Person for more on this topic. The post Hooters and Kids: Not a good mix also addresses the dangers of promoting sexuality as the primary way of understanding yourself.
- Sexuality is a beautiful part of who we are. However, when it’s pulled out of the context of a person as a whole, people end up being exploited or exploiting themselves or others. Self-esteem, authentic relationships, many different components of oneself are threatened by removing sexuality from context.
- Parents should be proud and identify with their child’s accomplishments. However, if the main thing that you find yourself being proud of is your child’s appearance, it’s time to take a good, hard look at yourself. Your child is a complex human being, with talents to offer the world that go way beyond how they look. Give yourself time to identify what your child’s unique abilities are, from being great at math to having a heart for the outcast, then focus on helping them develop those qualities further.
- If you find that you have bought into finding your own primary value in your physical appearance and sex appeal, do some soul searching. Your life is about so much more than how you look. Just like your child, you have something precious to offer the world, something beyond the ability to stimulate sexual desire. A life that’s lived with a superficial focus on appearance is unsatisfying in the long run. Ask yourself, what do I love about me? Is it your sense of humor, your intellect, or your organizational skills? Make a list of all of the things that you do well and enjoy doing, and start focusing on how you can make this world a better place by using your talents.
Once we as adults are able to find our own inner strengths and become focused on being world changers, it is so much easier to help our children do the same. Don’t buy into the lie that you are how you look. Your value lies so much deeper; give yourself the chance to find out all the things that you were made to be, to be transformed, to learn to fly.