Raising Kids in an R-Rated Culture

Between sultry pop stars and suggestive prime-time TV, children encounter sexual language and images at very young ages. Here's how to protect your kids. A special must-read report.

Introduction

For many years, children at one Chicago nursery school have enjoyed playing with big cardboard boxes, transforming them into trucks, spaceships, castles, and forts. Lately, though, the preschool staff has been watching a little more closely when kids disappear into the cartons. The reason? Teachers recently found a 4-year-old boy lying on top of a female classmate, trying to kiss her.

In the past, educators would have thought such behavior was an indication that a child had been sexually abused. But these days, they're just as likely to suspect that kids are merely mimicking something they've seen on TV. "Children always react to what they're exposed to in the media," says Diane Levin, a former teacher and author of Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture (National Association for the Education of Young Children). "Play often involves issues children are trying to understand, and one of those issues is sex."

Although violence in the media has provoked major public controversy, concern is growing about the impact of exposure to sexualized language and situations, especially on the very young. There's no consensus among experts on the short- or long-term effects our sex-heavy pop culture has on kids. But parents of young children seem to agree that the media's obsession with sex is prodding kids to look and act precociously sexual. "My 3-year-old stands in front of the mirror and belts out words from a Britney Spears song -- 'I'm not that inn-o-cent,' " says Molly Gordy, a mother of two girls in New York City. "We sure hope that's not true."

What's coming out of the mouths of babes hardly sounds innocent -- even though it usually is. Driving a car pool of 5-year-olds, a California mother was dumbfounded when her daughter asked, "What's a blow job?"

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