If you’ve been having an unsettling feeling lately that little girls don’t seem to be staying “little” for very long, it’s not just your imagination. There is no doubt that “little girls” are venturing into “big girl” clothes, salons, and ideas earlier than ever. Even since I entered practice just 8yrs ago, I’ve seen a shift toward ever-younger growing-up of girls. As an example, I used to consider it shocking to see a sexually active fifteen-year-old girl; now, I’m sorry to say, I hardly even consider it unusual. Let’s face it, parents. Children are doing things now in middle school that many of us had probably never even heard of until college! It worries me, and I’m sure it worries many of you as well.
Why are we seeing such a shift? Certainly the media plays a tremendous role. No longer are girls idolizing images like Laura Ingalls, little orphan Annie, or Haley Mills from Pollyanna and the original Parent Trap. Now our girls are bombarded with images of young girls dressed in celebrity clothing and made-up like supermodels and rock stars. And we parents are influenced by, and sometimes promote, these images as well. We hire limos to take our little girls to see child-idol concerts at Rupp Arena, and we sponsor birthday parties that include our little girls prancing down cat-walks dressed in glitzy costumes. Is it all “just for fun,” or are we ourselves normalizing these things and thereby pushing our little girls to grow up?
Over the years, I have come to recognize certain early “milestones” in the girls that I see — early milestones that often mean a girl is at-risk for current or future health and life issues (early sexual debut, STDs, pregnancy, smoking, drug experimentation, unhealthy family and peer relationships, depression). The question, of course, is whether delaying some of these external, controllable milestones can help slow down the rate at which our girls are growing up. I think it can. I strongly believe that girls who are allowed to dress like adults are more likely to believe they are ready to pursue adult-type activities. By nature, dressing like an adult tends to attract adult-type attention and expectations.
So what are reasonable ages for some of these milestones? In my line of work, I quite fortunately have the opportunity to know many amazing mothers and young women, and I have spent some time quizzing them over the past few months. I have quizzed mothers who seem to be raising bright, mature, healthy young women about the ages they believe to be appropriate for milestones, and I have quizzed many bright, mature, healthy young women themselves with the same questions. I must say, I have been impressed by how consistent the answers have been. Since parents often ask me what ages I think certain milestones are best introduced, I am going to make an effort at quantifying some of these milestones, based on the input I’ve received from these mothers and young women I have such respect for. So here goes:
Ear-piercing: This is cultural, to some extent, but the majority of mothers I spoke with believe that this should be a late-elementary to middle-school milestone. It should be done when a girl is willing to go through the pain without fussing and when she is able to take care of the earrings herself. And earrings should be small and modest, not dangling, until high school.
Lip gloss in public: 10-12yrs
Shaving legs: 11-12yrs
Light make-up (a little powder, blush, light mascara, lip gloss): 12-13
Full make-up: 14, but light on the eye make-up until at least 17-18. Heavy black eyeliner is a definite “red flag.”
Professional manicure or pedicure: Only for very special occasions, and not before middle school. In my opinion, this is an expensive “adult” luxury, and I wouldn’t pay for it except for something major, such as prom or high-school graduation. I hardly pay for it for myself!
Tanning bed or spray tan: Never. Tanning is unhealthy, and spray-tanning (although at least better than actual tanning) just helps to promote tanned skin as attractive. I find any type of intentionally-tanned skin to be a “red flag” in the girls I see.
Acquiring a Facebook page: 13-14
Dating alone: 16
Carrying a purse that costs >$50: When she can afford to buy it with money she’s earned herself.
Wearing a thong: College (actually, most of the mothers said never!). It especially disturbs me to see middle-schoolers in these!
So, what can you do to help your little girl stay a little girl for a little longer?
1) Don’t be afraid to say no. If you think it’s too early for lipstick, say no to lipstick. If you think her eye makeup is too heavy and dark, send her back to the bathroom to start over, and help her learn the art of applying make-up well, so that it accentuates her pretty features rather than drastically changing them.
2) Teach your children to be media-wise. Point out marketing schemes to them in the shows they watch, and talk about how commercials are really trying to sell something other than the actual product (popularity, happiness, etc. — things that no product alone can provide). Help your children understand that a sales company’s only goal is to sell their product and make money, whatever avenue that requires.
3) Talk with your daughter about the extreme amount of “input” it takes to make movie stars and models look the way they do — intensive exercise, professional hairstyling, make-up artists, taylored clothing, hours of prep-time, cosmetic procedures and surgeries. Make sure she knows that magazine and internet images are air-brushed and not real.
4) Keep TVs and computers in public places in the home. Computer screens should be easily visible to anyone walking by. Computers definitely do not belong in children’s bedrooms.
5) Keep cell phones docked in public areas in the home. They should not be kept in children’s rooms overnight.
6) Keep your daughter active in sports, community, and volunteer activities. Foster her gifts and interests. Always focus much more on her personality, intellect, school successes, and talents than her physical appearance.
7) Seek out “family friendships” with other families who share similar ideals.
8) Try to keep your daughter’s “community circle” fairly large. The more variety she is exposed to, the less likely she will feel pressured to always fit in with one particular group or style.
And most importantly, be a strong role model! Behave like the healthy, mature woman you hope your daughter becomes, and she will very likely follow in your footsteps.
Michelle Bennett, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Pediatric & Adolescent Associates