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3 August 2011 / THE SEXUALISATION OF CHILDREN

There has been a lot of debate recently about the sexualisation of children - especially young girls. The Government commissioned Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mothers' Union, to produce a report on the issue and his subsequent proposals have led to lots of much-needed discussion on the subject.

As headmistress of an all-girls school and as the mother of a teenage boy, I believe that, as a society, we are in danger of encouraging our children to abandon their childhoods too quickly and that a shift in culture is needed. That doesn't make me a killjoy. On the contrary, I fully accept the need to move with the times and that, like it or not, the cult of celebrity exerts a powerful influence that cannot be ignored.

Understanding its superficiality, however, and developing the ability to appreciate what is really important in life, is something that we can all teach our children. Girls need to know that it's absolutely fine to play outside and get dirty - rather than fretting about broken finger nails or messing up their hair. And boys should similarly be allowed to enjoy childhood games, without feeling the pressure of conforming to macho stereotypes.

School clearly has an important part to play in helping young people discover who they are. The rules and regulations we impose can, perhaps ironically, release the individual - providing a safe haven from the many outside pressures that can often weigh heavy on an independent spirit. I'm a great advocate of uniform, for example, because I believe it makes us all look at the person, rather than what they're wearing. You might argue that the way a person dresses gives expression to their individuality - maybe, but a human being is made up of far more than what appears on the outside.

School uniform is, in the most positive sense, a great leveller. No matter what your circumstances or background, wearing the same clothes as everyone else means having to focus on personality and character, rather than the fashion trends that dictate whether someone is ‘cool' or ‘uncool'.

Whilst school can be firm on matters like internet and mobile phone use, it can be harder for parents to lay down the law at home. Most children have access to computers from a young age these days and there is nothing wrong with that - as long as what they are doing is being carefully monitored. The same is true of television. Some programmes are excellent in terms of their suitability for particular age groups, many others decidedly less so.

With many of us working long days, there is a strong temptation to opt for the easy life and let children do what they like when they get home. I believe a much firmer approach is necessary. Parents need to retain control and they need to be much more confident about saying no. It seems to me that, in this highly pressurised world in which we live, many of us want to be our children's friend, rather than an adult responsible for their development and upbringing. Yes of course we should have fun with them but there should also be boundaries. A child needs to learn the parameters of acceptable behaviour and that only happens with parental guidance.

Childhood, as we all know, doesn't last long. That's why it's so precious and why we should do all we can to make sure young people are given the space and time to enjoy it. Life has plenty of stresses and strains as it is without burdening our children with needless anxieties like "Am I wearing the right clothes?","What do I look like?", "Will so-and-so fancy me?" and "How can I become famous?" - before they are old enough to properly make sense of such issues.

The Bailey Report has made a number of recommendations including producing a new code for clothing retailers that will advise against selling suggestive clothes and swimwear for pre-teens, introducing new guidelines for the internet industry that will make it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material and making information about the different codes of regulation across the media, communications and retail industry more accessible so that complaints can be made more readily.

In my opinion, that is all entirely laudable but, at the end of the day, change is far more effective if it is bottom up, rather than top down. As parents, we need to accept responsibility for what our children do and don't do. It's very easy to blame magazine editors for printing endless photos of scantily-clad so-called celebrities, TV programmers for sleaze dressed up as entertainment and internet providers for a plethora of soft porn sites but, at the end of the day, they are catering for a lucrative market - and that market is us.

If we truly want things to be different and we don't want our pre-pubescent daughters pestering us for skimpy tops and make up, instead of dolls and ice-cream, we have to embed those principles in our own lifestyles first. If we don't spend hours of leisure time in front of a screen, our children are far less likely to do so themselves. If we adopt a healthy, active outdoor life, the probability is so will they. And if we have self-respect and acceptable standards of behaviour, the chances are they will too.

We all want our children to be happy, healthy and safe. We can't protect them from every risk and danger, but we can set a good example and show them that there is a lot to be gained by adopting a common sense approach that values aspiration and adventure but doesn't get seduced by image and fluff.

The power to change lies with individuals and local communities. If our children are turning into mini Cheryl Coles or Justin Biebers, the blame is ours - not everyone else's.


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