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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

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Have children lost their innocence?

‘They grow up so fast these days,” older generations have always said about youngsters. But are they growing up too fast?

They are if they’re wearing revealing clothes, copying the provocative dance moves they see in music videos or wearing makeup – and aren’t even in their teens...

Fears that our children are being robbed of their childhood and being “sexualised” too early are to the fore at the moment. A report by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers’ Unions, was published on Monday which claims that modern culture is bombarding the young with sexual images and references – and not allowing them to remain children.

There are a variety of culprits. Advertising billboards bearing sexual images near school gates are one. There are also music videos where the stars dance in provocative ways – with those by Rihanna and Christina Aguilera singled out for criticism.

And there is widespread alarm about some of the clothes which are aimed at pre-teen girls but have an obvious sexual element – such as thongs, padded bras and T-shirts bearing slogans such as “apprentice babe” or “so many boys, so little time”.

It is troubling for a lot of parents, according to Suzie Hayman, Cumbria trustee with the parenting support group Family Lives.

“It’s definitely a huge issue for us,” she says. “Parents who phone up and people on the message board on our website are often concerned about it.”

This sexualisation is damaging, Suzie argues, for many reasons.

“It can put pressure on young people to behave in certain ways before they are really old enough to understand what they’re doing. And we’re giving the impression to girls at a very young age that their value depends on how attractive they are to the opposite sex.”

According to a survey by parenting website Netmums, 44 per cent of children aged between eight and 13 now worry about their looks, and 38 per cent worry about their bodies. But as children approach puberty they inevitably gain weight and Suzie adds: “Some of them panic that they’re getting fat – boys as well as girls. It can lead to anorexia and bulimia.”

What is strange about the sexual images children are absorbing is that we also live in a time where there is more concern about paedophilia and protection of children than ever before.

Youth leaders need criminal record checks and teachers are advised by their unions to be wary of giving a comforting cuddle to a crying child, in case the gesture is misconstrued. Yet no-one bans pre-teen makeup and provocative clothes.

“That’s what we should be worrying about,” says Suzie. “We’ve got the spotlight on the wrong place.”

Can’t parents decide how to dress their children or what to allow them to watch? Suzie explains that it’s not that simple.

Parents come under pressure from their children’s “pester power” – and many feel that if they don’t give in their child will be ridiculed at school.

“When parents phone our helpline they are often asking: ‘How do I say no?’ It’s very difficult to deal with a stroppy child who says: ‘You’re making me a laughing stock, everybody else wears makeup, everybody else wears revealing clothes.’

“We seem to have a crisis of confidence among parents. They find it hard to put their foot down. I think we need to arm parents with the ability to say no.”

Cathie Jones, lecturer in childcare studies at the University of Cumbria, points out that the early sexualisation of children has an impact on both sexes.

“It’s putting pressure on girls to take risks sooner than they should,” she says. ”But it also leads boys who don’t have a lot of experience of relationships to think girls should always be available, and behave as they do in music videos.

“Education is vital, to show them that there is an alternative.”

So should the likes of provocative clothes, makeup aimed at pre-teens and music videos be banned? Films carry age certificates and TV programmes featuring sexual content are only shown after 9pm. Suzie says there’s no reason why music videos shouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions.

“On Monday I was at the gym and one of these videos was on TV– and it was the middle of the day.

“You have film classifications and the 9pm watershed. Music videos should come under that.”

But when it comes to clothes and makeup she hopes shops and manufacturers can regulate themselves without the need for a law. The designers and buyers are parents too. They should think about what they would actually like their own children to be wearing. Self-regulation is the way to go.”

Cathie believes consumer disapproval will remove inappropriate clothes from the shops. Some chains have already undertaken not to stock them and negative publicity is enough to make many companies drop them. She agrees with Suzie that music videos should be classified in the same way as films.

“Some of them are bordeline porn,” she says.

Is there a danger of an over-reaction? Girls under 16 in makeup and glamorous costumes were on stage at The Wave in Maryport last week, as they have been for 30 years now. And the organisers of the show view it as perfectly innocent.

The occasion was the annual Queen of the Solway Dance Festival.

It was founded by Florence Mulgrew, who also set up the Mulgrew School of Dance in Maryport, and featured performers from three up to 18 . But Florence insists that it is the context that makes the difference. The girls are up on stage, not out with their friends.

“The dancers have to wear a bit of makeup and have their hair fixed right when they are up there,” she explains. “But we don’t go over the top with it. It’s only a bit of eye shadow and blusher.

“The costumes are not revealing in any way. They are only for wearing when they are up on stage dancing.

“The rest of the time they just dress like normal kids. They don’t wear makeup when they are out and about. I don’t know about the 17-year-olds – but not the younger ones.”

And the festival is family entertainment. “The audiences are mostly parents, grandmas, aunties and cousins.

“I’ve never heard bad comments. I only hear people say: ‘I wonder who made that costume, it’s very smart.”

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