What's the matter with kids today? (And how to mentor)

October 5, 2008
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So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids
By Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne
Ballantine Books, 240 pp., $25

The Self Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance
By Polly Young-Eisendrath
Little Brown, 256 pp., $25.99

Cringe: Teenage Diaries, Journals, Notes, Letters, Poems, and Abandoned Rock Operas
Edited by Sarah Brown
Crown, 240 pp., $22.95

Raising kids today isn't exactly child's play. Kids are maturing faster, pushed along by media, popular culture and technology (think video games and hand-held game systems). Some kindergarten girls flash thongs, boys are addicted to violent and sexist video games, and Bratz dolls with pouty lips and ludicrously lush figures narrow role model images for girls who haven't yet begun to develop. In "Too Sexy Too Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect their Kids," Diane Levin, a professor of education, and Jean Kilbourne, known for her work on the image of women in advertising, are quick to stress that this issue isn't about sex education, but rather about being inappropriately sexual at an inappropriate age. Sexualizing young kids, say the authors, gives them the sense that their value comes only from being sexual and attractive, an idea that is damaging for kids who are not yet fully formed in either their bodies or their sense of themselves.

So what can parents do? Plenty, say the authors. Don't "just say no" when your 8-year-old wants a low-cut micro mini, because that's almost certain to create rebellion. Instead, talk about why she wants the dress, and come to a solution together. Watch the shows your kids watch and ask questions. Counteract the stereotypes by pointing out role models, especially young boys and girls who defy the norm brilliantly. Most importantly, establish safe channels so kids feel they can talk with you about anything.

Childhood isn't just an important developmental stage. It should also be an inalienable right, and that means fighting the media and the culture to let our kids be kids.

Most parents think their child is the epicenter of the universe. (I know I do.) But what happens when a child is overly praised and never exposed to disappointment? Being and feeling special is supposed to lead to happiness and positive self regard. But this way of parenting, says psychotherapist and psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath in "The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance," can lead to just the opposite, including unrealistic fantasies of wealth and love, depression, anxiety, and out-and-out rage when those dreams don't come true. This sense of entitlement can keep kids from coping with adversity, learning empathy, and growing into responsible adults.

Young-Eisendrath's advice is practical and easy to implement. Scale back the praise, which can create a fear of failure. Stop giving unearned privileges. Don't solve every emotional problem for your kids or take away roadblocks. A little "reflective misery" can force your kids to reevaluate their actions and learn a better way of doing things, and roadblocks teach kids the thrill and satisfaction of the process needed to reach a dreamed-for goal.

While parents might be a little miffed by Young-Eisendrath's insistence on "the value of being ordinary" and her implication that religion is essential, it should be noted that ordinary here is merely a starting point for being able to grow and achieve spectacular things, and religion can simply be an understanding of the deeper meaning of life. Parents might also chafe at not making their child the center of attention, but as this wise book shows, that just could be the most loving thing they could do.

Teenagers are a breed unto themselves. But if you truly want to understand them, one of the best ways just might be to read their own interpretations of what their lives are like in "Cringe: Teenage Diaries, Journals, Notes, Letters, Poems, and Abandoned Rock Operas," edited by Sarah Brown. Inspired by the New York reading series of the same name, "Cringe" is a gleeful compendium of diary entries, many in the original handwriting and in more readable print, these selections come complete with exclamation point overkill and tiny hearts dotting the i's. "Cringe" uncovers teenage life as it is really lived. The entries each have commentary from their now-adult authors, helping to give a deeper - and funnier - perspective.

All the hot-button teen issues are here. From "Buddies and Death Threats" (the essential lifeline of friends) to "Being a Better Horrible You" (self help for raging insecurities) to "I Don't Like You" (love at its most tormented and glorious), "Cringe" exposes the craggy terrain of the teenage psyche from the ones who know it best - and lived to look back on the angst. From chapters like "You Ruined the Whole Family" to "Hope I Die Before I Get Old," "Cringe" looks at teenage wastelands and uses social humor to make social commentary.

Reading "Cringe," it's easy to see how these years are all about heightened reality and an overwhelming maelstrom of emotions, but with the addition of the writers' adult perspectives, it's highly comforting to know that this, too, with a little understanding and help, like all stages of childhood's rocky pathways, shall pass.

Caroline Leavitt's next novel is " Breathe," to be published by Algonquin Books. She can be reached at

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