Early in January I wrote about self-esteem. I stated, “My most common question is to ask a student if she thinks she is a good person and I let her ponder that awhile. It’s often quite a struggle for a young person to answer that for an adult and may take some time to evolve, but that is the ultimate root of self-esteem. You have to believe in your worth. In fact, worthless is a word regularly bandied about by those with a low self-image.”
Last week, the clothing chain Abercrombie and Fitch released a line of padded swimsuits for girls as young as eight years of age. There has been a backlash to this concept from some parents, of course, as the incessant marketing of adult-oriented expectations to ever-younger children has become a siren call for sanity in the world of sales. There are plenty of demons to go around in this attack on childhood.
The movie industry constantly promotes youthful promiscuity and the “need” for attachment and being attractive to the opposite sex.
Sexuality on television and in music videos floods the minds of our children with body images, morality and clothing styles that are anything but child-like. Marketing executives have come to the realization that there is a huge amount of discretionary spending power in young children and that sewing the seeds of early adulthood in youngsters is both easy to do and a powerful motivation to separate them from their money.
The messages our children, and particularly our daughters, are constantly fed are that they need to have perfect bodies, make-up and behaviours to recruit and retain good boyfriends, generally portrayed as being lean, sporty, wealthy and, of course, well dressed.
Without such attributes, and attraction powers, the girls are simply not going to be happy, or in the terminology I used a few weeks ago, worthy of a mate.
I think this challenge of social acceptability has existed for thousands of years as young people have gone through the “mating” phase of life by presenting themselves as a decent catch for the opposite sex.
What has changed in recent years is the movement of this social and mating pecking order from late high school teens to early elementary children. We have heaped a lot of social pressure on to younger children, resulting in higher and earlier levels of eating disorders, social anxieties and teen depression.
I refer to the royal “we” in the comment above because as easy as it is to identify the outside demons in this shift of values, the reality is that we, as parents, are part of the problem. We have given our young children the freedom to choose and the economic buying power to make them targets. We have accepted ever-lowering standards of moral behaviour in television programming and given our children televisions or computers in their own room to watch whatever they want. We’ve given them devices to listen to, and 24-hour-a-day access to, music that is often inappropriate and clearly influential. In other words, we’ve put them into an adult world, then reeled a bit when they have taken to it like fish to water.
Children are not adults, either physically or emotionally. If we thrust them into an adult world, they will feel unworthy and their inability to live up to the adult standards around them will likely create significant stress in the short run and self-esteem issues for a lot longer.
Parents need to coalesce around the notion that a childhood is something worth maintaining until at least the entrance to high school.
I guarantee you that if a 100,000 parents of Grade 5 girls wrote letters to Abercrombie and Fitch, saying they would permanently boycott their products if they didn’t pull these padded swimsuits from their offerings, you’d see a lot more action out of the company than everyone simply reading a few columns of indignation and then letting their kids go to the mall and buy whatever they want while tweeting on their cell phones about the “cool” adult things they are doing.
Graham Hookey is an educator and writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.