Children are exposed to more and more at younger and younger ages. Data showing the negative effects of of exposure to violence, inappropriate sexuality and offensive language are convincing. The media is a powerful influencer in our children's understandings of how the world is put together and of what their role in it should be. Unfortunately, far too often, the message little girls get is that they have to be pretty, sexual beings to have a place; and little boys absorb the view that they have to be powerful, strong men of physical action to be seen and counted.
ARE YOU REDUCING YOUR CHILD TO A STEREOTYPE?
While affected by media messages, your children are still looking first and foremost to you for who they should be and how they should feel about things. There is much you can do to counteract the influence of the media, advertising and industries which cater to swaying children.
First, parents can help control media influence by not buying their children clothes with messages on them. When you put your daughter in a t-shirt that says, “I’m a princess” or “Princesses rule” (or even has a sparkly rhinestone crown), you are reinforcing the idea that you want her to look like a princess. And what princesses do kids look to? Primarily Disney princesses. Talk about unrealistic body examples!
Little boys play with action figures whose bulging muscles are at least as outrageously out of proportion as Barbie’s ridiculously small waste. Although there are lots of superheroes who do not have super powers, they are most often depicted in physically fighting mode. I grew up watching Bat Man and although I know that Bruce Wayne didn’t just rely on his muscles, my main memory of Bat Man were words like “Biff” and “Pow” flashing on the screen. The predominant message of what it meant to be an outstanding man was not using reason and common sense and smarts. Nope. When I saw boys wearing t-shirts with the batman symbol, I assumed they admired his physical power.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THE PRINCESS/SUPERHERO IS 100% COMING FROM YOUR CHILD?
(If you feel like an image perception is 100% coming from your child, I have two thoughts. One, fantasy play is very typical for 3 and 4 year olds, so just look for the obsession to taper off as your children turn 5, 6 or 7. Two, get curious about what it means to them and then see how you can meet that quality in some other way. Maybe when you ask what is so great about being Batman (after looking at you like you are an idiot), your son says with glowing eyes, "He protects the world!" Great! I love that! You can help him see what are other ways besides being a super hero he can help protect the world. For example, teach him the communication skills he needs to be an UPstander, an advocate for the underdog, or perhaps a champion of conservation.
LET YOUR CHILDREN BE THEIR AGE
Another step for parents is to buy clothing that “looks your age.” I have heard parents justify a short-cropped halter top for an 8 year old because “it’s so hot.” And yet that same parent would likely not dress an 8-year-old son in a sleeveless cropped t-shirt. There are lots of attractive, comfortable clothes that allow children to move freely and play that aren’t layered with any other messages about what their bodies should look like or who the kids should be. Parents would be wise to reflect thoughtfully on what image or message the clothes their children wear actually project.
CAREFUL THE THINGS YOU SAY: CHILDREN WILL LISTEN
Yes, the media plays a role in forming your kids’ views, but let’s face it; kids are sponges who pick up their parents’ attitudes. Every time you comment on someone’s body—whether it is someone you know in person or someone you see on television—you are building your child’s crib sheet of what bodies should look like. The comment said with disapproval that your neighbor looks like she has gained some weight tells your child that you would disapprove of her gaining some weight—perhaps at a stage in her development when she should expect to be putting on some weight before adolescence. Probably that is not what you meant, but kids have a tendency to overgeneralize without our realizing it.
Most importantly, parents need to become comfortable with their own bodies. Media influence is big, but your own confidence in and enjoyment of your body is even bigger. I realize that is easier said than done as body image is something lots of people struggle with, but to the extent that you can relate eating well and exercising to having more energy, sleeping better and generally feeling good, you will be setting a healthy example for your child no matter how you actually feel about your body.
FOCUS ON WHO PEOPLE ARE NOT HOW THEY LOOK
Finally, although parents spend time telling children to stand up straight or get their hair out of their eyes so their faces will be visible, in general parents will serve their children to well to promote a message of Handsome Is as Handsome Does. Remind children that their value lies not in how they look but in who they are as people, in what kindness and goodness they bring to the world. A toothy, easily given, heartfelt smile is worth infinitely more than perfectly straight, white teeth hidden behind a sneer. Comment on people you admire and what they have done to make you admire them. Leave their physical physic out of it.