Don’t Back Away, Dad
Ashleigh decides to wear her pink-and-yellow polka dot skirt, because it shows off her tan legs. She hopes Josh, the cute boy in her math class, will notice. Her dad certainly did, as he glanced up for a moment from reading the morning newspaper when she bounced down the stairs. But he figured if her mom had approved the mini skirt, then why bother making her go back upstairs to change and risk starting an argument?
Ashleigh grabs her cell phone before heading out the door and takes another look at the cool "model-type" photo she took of herself last night on her bed. When she and Sarah get dropped off at the mall after school, she wants to show it to the guy who works behind the counter at Starbucks. She wonders if he'll agree to meet her at the baseball field on Friday night.
Ashleigh is 13, but she easily could pass for 16, given the clothes and makeup she wears. Her mother sighs and shrugs her shoulders, and her father wonders where his little girl went.
Forget 13 — even girls as young as 8 are trying to look 16 and are feeling the pressure to look and act hot. According to consumer research by the NPD Group, tween beauty queens (girls 8 to 12) spend $500 million a year on body sprays and lip products. And the American Psychological Association now confirms the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising and media is harmful to their self-image and healthy development.
The "sexy-girl syndrome," according to Dr. Eileen L. Zurbriggen, who chaired an APA task force on girls' sexualization, skews what preteens and teens feel valued for. In an article that appeared in Family Circle, Zurbriggen says their minds become full of worries about how they look and what other people are thinking about them, instead of whether they're smart or funny, kind or talented.
Fathers, in particular, have the ability to counteract today's aggressive marketing of sexuality and speak louder and clearer to their daughters about their self-worth, says Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician and the author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (Ballantine Books, 2007). She encourages dads to open their eyes to their daughters' world and protect their minds and bodies.
Fathers' attention, guidance and instruction are crucial to keep young girls from developing an identity solely based on sexuality and to help them grow into confident women, who have a strong sense of self-worth based on their intellect, interests and talents.
While many fathers take a step back during the preteen and teen years, so that Mom can take over the challenges of clothing, makeup and dating, Meeker says fathers must remain involved. Dads are uniquely qualified to offer their daughters their courage, intelligence and strength.
Royce Willmschen of Raleigh says he's very intentional about staying connected with his 9- and 12-year-old daughters. "I make sure we have time to talk one-on-one. I walk to the bus stop every morning with Claire, my 9-year-old, and I usually have dinner once a week with Natalie, my 12-year-old, while my wife and Claire are at dance rehearsal." He adds that in addition to attending all of his daughters' activities — basketball, dance, piano and theater — the family also sits down together several times a week.
Kevin Chelko of Huntersville is the father of Christopher, 21, Amanda, 16, and Maddi, 12. "As Chris was growing up and going through all the typical boy stuff, like camping and hiking and sports, the girls got dragged along for the ride," Chelko explains. "These type of activities, normally thought of as male, now just seem to be part of the norm for Amanda and Maddi, and that keeps me involved in their lives a lot more than if they were only into the fru-fru girly stuff."
The Chelkos schedule "family time" and make Amanda and Maddi participate on a regular basis. "If you stay involved in teens' lives and keep them busy, there is very little idle time for them to stray or wander."
Chelko adds that he tries to support each of his daughters in their interests. "They have their own special activities they like to do with Dad. Amanda likes to hike and camp, and Maddi is more into basketball, softball and volleyball."
Monitoring social activities
But beyond what's going on inside their homes, fathers should try to remain aware of what's happening in their daughters' wider world. Chelko says it's important to remain involved in teens' lives on a daily basis, even though they are gaining the privilege of becoming more independent. "Know who their friends are, where they are going and with whom," he says.
Dads also should show interest in the movies and music their daughters like, and talk with them about the messages that are coming across. And, paying attention to what fashions girls are wearing presents dads with an opportunity to talk about why they agree, or don't agree ... and what boys may think about such clothes.
Greg Fiorentino of Apex says he ties to stay up to date with his daughters' school and social lives. "We monitor their social communications via Facebook and e-mail by checking their accounts once in a while and making sure they only are communicating appropriate information and materials."
He often tells his daughters that what is important is not how they look, but what they feel on the inside, and that he loves them regardless of what they're wearing.
Fiorentino also isn't letting his teenage girls — Rebecca, 16, and Grace, 14 — grow up too fast. Just because everyone else is doing it, isn't a good enough reason in the Fiorentino household.
"Rebecca is the only one who has a cell phone, and she didn't receive it until after her 15th birthday," Fiorentino says, adding that age 16 has been the family rule for wearing makeup and beginning to date.
As counter-culture as this sounds, Meeker encourages parents to set limits and resist the temptation to back down. Because young girls don't have the intellectual maturity of adults and can be easily seduced into trouble, she says it's parents' responsibility to set rules and vigilantly protect them against themselves as well as others.
Fiorentino says he and his wife try to keep their daughters busy to limit their downtime and access to negative attention-grabbers. Church, school and sporting activities, he says, offer environments where positive messages can sink in and nurture a strong sense of self-worth.
Encouraging smart choices
"Peer pressure is the No. 1 thing I worry about as a parent," Chelko says. "It is very powerful and can easily influence girls, who seem to be all about what others think."
He says he talks with both his daughters about the importance of a healthy sexual relationship between two mature adults in contrast to what happens when a teen becomes sexually active and then the relationship ends. Chelko says they talk about the negative feelings, harsh words and hurtful rumors that often get spread.
Willmschen says that although he tries to create a home environment that will counter the need for his daughters to find self-worth from outside sources, he admits he hasn't talked with his daughters enough about peer pressure and sex. "My fear is that they will unintentionally put themselves in situations where they attract the wrong kind of attention, and they won't be able to handle it properly."
Talking about sex is essential, Meeker says, and it's also important to give teen girls permission to call home and ask for help — perhaps without any questions asked — if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.
Fathers are perfectly suited to talk with daughters about respecting themselves and their bodies and waiting until they are older. Dads not only were teenage boys once themselves, but they've also "been there, done that," and they know what goes on inside the hormone-driven male mind.
With Hollywood, the media and social-networking Web sites vying for girls' attention and values, Colin Pinkney, a Charlotte father of six children (four of whom are girls, ages 21, 17, 10 and 7), says fathers must invest in their daughters and fight against today's sexual culture. Spend the time, stay involved and secure a strong father-daughter bond through open communication.
"It's a war worth waging," Pinkney says, "and whoever makes the biggest investment wins — whether it's MySpace, YouTube or you, her dad."
Lee McCracken is an associate editor of Charlotte Parent, a sister publication of Carolina Parent.