With high heels, low-cut tops and mini-skirts — whose glamor is heavily promoted on television — pre-teens are getting pushed into the "sexy little girl syndrome" that ill-prepares them for workable intimate relationships later in life, says Amy Lang, a sex educator and Ashland native.
Lang will give a talk for parents and sign her books, "The Ask ANYTHING Journal" and "Birds + Bees + YOUR Kids — A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love and Relationships," at 7 p.m. Thursday at Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St.
Lang, the daughter of Southern Oregon University emeritus biology professor Frank Lang, gives presentations called "Too Sexy, Too Soon" that help parents clarify their values around love and sexuality. That clarity can help them guide daughters as young as 8, 9 and 10 who are picking up values from TV and movies that are way beyond their maturity level, she says.
"Girls are exposed to so much more information now," Lang says in a phone interview from Seattle, where she lives. "They're dressing like teens "¦ in low-rider jeans and in much more grown-up clothes than at any time in the past. It's sending messages that are way beyond their years."
Lang, a graduate of University of Washington with a master's degree from Bastyr University in Seattle, helps parents find the courage and the words to set limits for young girls through constant repetition of practical cues.
"It's understandable why parents don't want to talk to their kids about sex," she says. "They don't know what to say. They're afraid to bring it up. They feel school will handle it or they'll learn it from friends and books — but they're giving them permission to have sex."
As a result, kids are missing out on being children and don't get to be themselves, she says. "They're concerned that they look 'hot' but they're only 8 or 10 and they don't know what it means."
Another reason parents hold back on candor about sexual norms, Lang says, is they're concerned their kids won't fit in socially.
One strategy to overcome this is working with girls to find and wear clothes that are hip, stylish, attractive, but not inappropriate.
"You might have to dig deeper to find them and there might be some battles," says Lang, "but it helps overcome the message from TV that being sexy is not a big deal and if you hook up with someone and have a wild makeout session or have sex, it's superficial, without intimacy."
While acknowledging that shouting and laying down laws may not do the job, Lang says parents can achieve results with steady messages from the family about what healthy relationships look like.
"Parenting is hard no matter what, but you can make healthier choices," she says. "We can't expect the culture to handle the education of our children about relationships. The media culture is intent on getting us to buy stuff — and it does it with sex. Sex sells."
The parents' job, she says, is to keep participating with teachable moments, to comment about what's on TV, to say "that dress is too adult on that girl" and to lay down understandable rules, such as "no cleavage in middle school."
While girls may seem to insist on watching shows with explicit content on high school kids, it's producing anxiety in the young ones who don't grasp the social skills needed to manage late teen relationships, she says.
Sex education starts in the fifth grade in most states, but it's not allowed to teach values; that must come from the parents and must be reinforced "until they beg you to please stop. We need to ignore their discomfort," Lang says.
"The best antidote is to keep making little comments, like 'what would you do if you got pregnant or got HIV and how would that impact your college plans?'"
Lang can be reached at email@example.com or 206-661-2245.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him a firstname.lastname@example.org.