By LEANNE ITALIE
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — My 9-year-old daughter looks older than she is. Always has. Kids and — worse — grown-ups who should know better comment on it all the time.
"Look how big her feet are," they observe, right in front of her.
It's all good, we tell her, humankind comes in many shapes and sizes. "Some kids just grow early."
Usually she smiles and goes back to hula-hooping, her stuffed animals, Mary Poppins, whatever 9-year-old kid thing she's happily doing. We never worried too much, until a few things recently set me fretting the toll of our skin-deep, sped up culture and discreetly searching my baby's body for nonexistent signs of puberty.
It began with a trip to the hair salon. She had grown her silky black hair down her back so she could donate a fat ponytail to an organization that makes wigs for sick kids. It had taken years to get her hair just right for a neat bob after the big snip, and I promised a trip to a fancy place to get the job done.
After her cascade of hair was gone, a pro with a blow dryer boofed her head to perfection and my 9-year-old went from looking 12-ish to looking 15-ish.
A few days later she got her ears pierced, adding another year. That's when panic took over, compounded by the first blogger in her fourth-grade class emerging to stress on a range of subjects, including a zit on her neck, getting into college — and having enough money to pay for it.
So if 13 is the new 18, then what's 9? And what can parents, especially those of girls, do to temper culture's pressure to grow up way too fast?
Susan Bartell, a psychologist and author of the self-esteem building "Girls-Only Weight Loss Guide: The Easy, Fun Way to Look and Feel Good," suggests parents not back away from the challenge, for starters.
"We have to say to our kids, 'You know, this show that you're watching or this store window are showing outfits and things that are not real life,'" she said. "'And even in real life, just because other parents allow things, I'm not going to allow it.' It's OK to fight battles with your kids. This is absolutely a battle worth fighting."
But first, Bartell said, some parents need to check their own motivations.
"Some dads and moms don't agree with the concept of keeping their girls young," she said. "They think it's cool that they're growing up very, very quickly. Many mothers want their girls to look older. They might have been overweight or nerdy kids themselves. Sometimes even when the girls don't want to their mothers are putting them in the trendy clothes and cropped tops. That's difficult."
Then there's TV, Bartell said.
"So many of the TV shows for this age group have kids in their own world. The parents aren't there at all or their roles are very minimal. The kids are walking around with very little parenting," she said. "The media pretends they aren't pushing girls to grow up quickly."
When the media pushes, parents should push back, she said, providing the time and space kids need to focus on other things like being smart, or a loyal friend, or a tolerant big sister.
And what of the child who looks older than she is? Does my daughter see what I see when she stands in front of the full-length mirror, where she pranced not all that long ago in her Cinderella gear from a dress-up box overflowing with glittery fairy wings and plastic tiaras?
Were those things harmless or a big mistake, like the whole piercing of the ears thing might have been?
Lenore Skenazy, a writer castigated as "America's worst mom" for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway by himself, urged me to give the worrying a rest.
"Nobody can wear their fairy wings forever," Skenazy said. "She would look weird wearing the fairy wings in a couple of years. If she thinks of herself as a beautiful young woman, that's not so terrible. If these are your biggest worries — my daughter looks good in earrings — it's time to grab a latte."
Besides, Skenazy said after looking at a photo of my punctured and shorn daughter, she doesn't look 16. She looks 11.
That's a little better. I'll keep that in mind next time one of her 9-year-old friends tells me how hot Tony Hawk is, or their little crew rips into "I'm Too Sexy" at a karaoke party. The blogger stars on her own YouTube channel, jumping around to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." She lists her age as 16, my mommy meltdown number.
"Look, I hate a lot about our culture, too," Skenazy commiserates. "It's extremely manipulative and forces kids to be interested in things they weren't, yet. But it's OK. There are always going to be parts of society that are really stupid. We played with Barbie before she was an astronaut, yet we grew up with a sense of decency and morals and social conscience. Kick back."
There's the magic: Learning to walk tall through the stupid parts, both me and my daughter as she bounces between big kid and little girl. The former already has several really good looks that kill. The latter still loves hopscotch. That makes her exactly who she needs to be.
"The outside is always going to change," Bartell said, "but who she is as a person starts now."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
By LEANNE ITALIE
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