Professor offers ways for parents to protect kids Submitted Photo

Diane Levin didn't mean to make me cringe, but as she spoke I kept thinking of hand-me-down Disney dresses and tiaras in the toy chest at home.

I also had flashes of the first time I saw my son, then 4, play a shooting game with a friend.

"We're only pretending," they said when asked about their stick guns and imaginary bullets.

Where had they learned this? I was curious, and a bit concerned.

So was Levin, back in the 1980s, when Boston-area teachers sought her help. They were seeing significant shifts on the playground. Boys and girls were grouping differently. Violent play was on the rise.

"I went around trying to figure out why, and what had changed," said Levin, who co-authored with Jean Kilbourne, "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and How Parents Can Protect Their Kids."

Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, taught and wrote her way through the women's movement. For about 10 years, she saw gender roles expanding and children developing with much greater freedom of expression.

A significant shift came in the mid-1980s, she said, when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated children's television and allowed marketers to use kids' programs to push toys. Children had become a consumer group, with boys and girls being targeted very differently.

"Using programs to market to children became the norm," Levin said. "Things are much worse now than before the women's movement. Now there is much more focus on buy, buy, buy, and there's much more focus on marketing."

Children as consumers.

Rigid gender roles.

No wonder the princess dresses and jeweled crowns were making me squirm.

"The younger you hook kids with your product, the longer you have them," Levin said. "Gender is a huge way to hook kids."

Research since deregulation has focused more on the use of violence in marketing to boys, but what Levin and Kilbourne point out is equally chilling: the use of sexual content in marketing to young girls.

Today, Levin said, we are seeing the fallout and what she calls the "sexualization of childhood."

"People were acting mystified, acting like it just suddenly appeared," Levin said.

Girls today are becoming "meaner and meaner at younger ages to girls who don't look right and whose parents don't buy them the right things," she said.

I thought again of my daughter and son, now 4 and 7, and my dreams for them: joy, health, compassion, meaningful relationships and rewarding work. Strong connections with nature.

Genderless, sexless dreams.

They are no different for my daughter than they are for my son.

I accept the swords and ribbons. I've found all play fodder for conversations and ideas, especially since one of their best friends is a wildly imaginative boy who loves dresses and tiaras, not soccer and trains.

What I'm realizing is that I don't want their ideas about gender - theirs or anyone else's - to be influenced by what sells. I don't want them to believe in a plastic fairyland.

So, what can be done?

Levin urges adults to protect young children from marketing stereotypes. And since some exposure is inevitable, start communicating early.

"Help them process. Don't just say, 'No, that's bad,' " she said. "You need to start having conversations, and then, as things start getting more serious and heavy, they know you are there to help them."

She urges parents to mix things up at home: Teach your son to cook, and play catch with your daughter.

Set rules about what they can watch and when, and talk with the parents of your children's friends about your values.

And, finally, my favorite Levin suggestion: Complicate your children's thinking, challenge what they see and hear.

Yes, complicate their thinking - and, therein, hopefully, you can keep it free.

If you go

"So Sexy, So Soon: Combating the Sexualization of Children"

• What: Workshop with Diane Levin.

• When: 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 12.

• Where: Green Fields County Day School, 6000 N. Camino de la Tierra.

• Cost: $15. Seating is limited. Reservations can be made by e-mail through Friday at


"A narrow definition of femininity and sexuality encourages girls to focus heavily on appearance and sex appeal. They learn at a very young age that their value is determined by how beautiful, thin, 'hot,' and sexy they are. And boys, who get a very narrow definition of masculinity that promotes insensitivity and macho behavior, are taught to judge girls based on how close they come to an artificial, impossible and shallow ideal."

"And they learn to associate physical appearance and buying the right products not only with being sexy but also with being successful as a person. Such lessons will shape their gender identity, sexual attitudes, and values, and their capacity for relationships, for love and connection, that they take into adulthood."

"Casting blame on parents is a smokescreen that diverts attention from where the blame rightfully belongs - squarely on the shoulders of the purveyors of these media and marketing messages, those who exploit our children's developmental vulnerability by using sex to make huge profits."

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or