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When innocent comments sexualize kids

Experts say calling kids ‘flirt’ or ‘heartbreaker’ can actually damage their understanding of sexuality

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Original story ran in Toronto Star on Aug. 21, 2016


I’ll admit to having done something super cliché when I found out one of my best friends was expecting a boy after my daughter was born: I started planning our kids’ wedding.

At their first play date — and let me emphasize that they were just little blobs lying on a play mat — I may have referred to him as Isla’s “little boyfriend.”

The two are now preschoolers and occasionally, while playing, will take each other’s hands, and my friend and I will squeal at the sight of young love. Of course it’s not love, but I like to pretend it is, because I like the idea of them liking each other. And there’s something adorable about little kids behaving like grown-ups.

Almost every mom I’ve spoken to has stories of cheekily referring to babies as being boyfriend or girlfriend, encouraging them to steal a kiss, or taking pictures of them hugging. It’s cute and benign and we don’t mean anything by it.

But is there something vaguely creepy about putting adult — and, by extension sexual — concepts on babies and little kids? If you think about it, we sexualize babies and kids all the time without really realizing we’re doing it. In some cases it’s just irritating. In others, it can do lasting damage to a child’s understanding of sexuality, say experts, and even invite the attention of predatory grown-ups.

Jackie Olynyk of Toronto says her 1-year-old daughter has been called flirty for smiling at strangers.

“When she was 9 or 10 months old, an older man she was smiling at in the grocery store approached us and said, ‘She’s a flirt’ He was being friendly, but it really bothered me.”

Moms of little boys aren’t exempt.

“(I) constantly hear, ‘Oh he’s going to be a heartbreaker,’ ” says Toronto mom Sophia Dhrolia. “Why, why is my son going to break hearts?”

This propensity to assign gender-specific and sometimes sexual concepts to little kids is everywhere in mainstream marketing. Take toddler Halloween costumes, for example, where boys’ police officer and fireman outfits look like the real deal, and girls’ look like something from a strip show.

Then there’s toddler bikinis, play high heels and pretend makeup, kids’ dance classes where they twerk and gyrate, right up to toddler beauty pageants. I’ve seen push-up bras and thong underwear geared toward grade school girls, and toy stripper poles. There’s even a baby boy’s onesie on the market that says “Hung like a 5-year-old” on it. Some of those examples are more extreme than others, but all involve — in a way — putting adult and sexual concepts on little kids.

“Certainly if we are talking about casting children in an adult persona, then I think that’s not a good idea,” says Sharon Cohen, a GTA-based registered psychotherapist. “I also think we have to be balanced. I don’t see anything wrong with telling a little girl that she’s pretty, but that should not be the only thing said.”

She pointed out that being attractive is important to little girls and grown women alike, but that comments — especially those geared toward children — shouldn’t delve into weight and body shape, and should also recognize positive non-physical traits like being kind.

But while using the word pretty, and even putting little kids in bikinis, didn’t phase Cohen, she said using the word “flirty” was wrong.

“I have a real problem with that, because that word implies a sexual awareness of appealing and attracting people in a sexual kind of way and there’s no reason to think that a child would be thinking that,” she said. “Why can’t we just say, ‘Oh, look how friendly she is?’”

Cohen said when a child believes, early on, that their value is in being a sexual being, and that’s how they should seek attention and approval, it can have lasting implications.

For some kids it could mean that they start to behave in a sexual way too early — young girls, who tend to be treated in this manner more often than boys, might start wearing makeup, dressing provocatively and even being promiscuous.

She added that another risk of encouraging children to behave like little adults, sexually, is that it can invite the attention of predators. This might be an extreme example, but it’s a risk nonetheless.

I broached this controversial subject in my Facebook mommy group and got mixed reactions, especially when it came to girls’ bikinis and calling little boys “heartbreakers.”

But the consensus, ultimately, seemed to be that children — while innocent — aren’t entirely unaware of sexuality, even in the most general sense. And that it’s our job as parents to support them as they discover their sexuality and not perpetuate negative gender stereotypes that could set our kids down the wrong path.

For my part, I’ll probably stop referring to my young daughters’ male buddies as “boyfriends.” And I’m going to be careful not to let the word “flirt” slip out when referring to a friendly baby. But I’ll keep telling my daughters they are pretty (because they are), as well as smart and kind and brave. And, as Cohen, suggests, I’m going to let them be kids.

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