Five Ways to Stop Your Six Year Old From Becoming a Sex Object

A new study just out from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, shows that girls as young as six are being conditioned by secular media to view themselves as sex objects. Yes, you read that right sex objects. At a time when they should be learning to read and exploring their artistic creativity, they are instead taking in images and propaganda that makes them believe they must be “sexy” in order to be popular, according to the study, published last month in the journal, Sex Roles.

Psychologists tested 60 girls age six to nine by showing them two paper dolls – one dressed in tight, revealing clothing, and the other dressed in a loose-fitting, trendy outfit. Researchers used a different set of dolls for each question, asking the girls to choose the doll that 1) looked like herself; 2) looked how she wanted to look; 3) was the “popular” girl at school; and 4) she wanted to play with.

Consistently, the girls chose the provocatively dressed doll over the modestly dressed one.

Researchers also found that media isn’t the only factor in the self-sexualization of young girls: it also depends on their mothers. “…girls who watched a lot of TV and movies and who had mothers who reported self-objectifying tendencies, such as worrying about their clothes and appearance many times a day … were more likely to say the sexy doll was popular,” said a report about the study. also reported that girls whose mothers used TV and movies as teaching moments about bad behaviors and unrealistic scenarios were much less likely to say they looked like the sexy doll.  This implies that maternal instruction during media viewing may decrease the odds of self-sexualization among young girls.

The study also revealed some quirky, and eyebrow-raising results. For example, girls who watch a lot of TV or movies and have religious mothers fair better, tending less to see themselves as sex objects. The study suggests that this may be because religious mothers usually model higher body-esteem and modesty for their daughters, therefore reducing media impact on them.

On the other hand, the study found that girls who watched very little sexualized media and have religious mothers were actually much more likely to choose the sexy doll over the modest one. Researchers offered two possible explanations for this: Either limiting or denying access to sexualized media created a forbidden fruit reactance, or the girls had previously demonstrated self-sexualization tendencies and the parents limited media exposure as a result. Regardless, the study maintains that “low media consumption is not a silver bullet.”

I agree, with some qualifications. I’m firmly against what I call “head-in-the-sand” parenting. By this I mean parents who segregate and shelter their kids from every possible detrimental influence, actual or perceived. Absolutely, we must protect our children from evil, but we also must teach them how to recognize and combat it in the real world. I don’t advocate “throwing them into the fire,” so to speak, but I do advocate allowing them to be in morally safe situations in which they mix with others who may think and believe differently from themselves.

By “head-in-the-sand” parenting, I also mean parents who assume that their kids are automatically protected because they attend private school or homeschool. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a fellow homeschooling parent say, “Well, that will never happen to my kids because we homeschool.” Think again. Many of the parents who’ve boldly made that comment in the past are now witnessing their children dressing provocatively, leaving the Church, co-habitating, addicted to drugs and/or alcohol or even worse. I’m not judging those parents – in fact, my heart aches for them – but I am critical of their ideology. There is no method of educating or parenting that can be put on auto-pilot.

The moral is: We must do our best in all regards to raise our children right, but we can’t be duped into believing that our best is an unconditional guarantee.

So, when we’re talking about the tragic self-sexualization of our little girls, let me offer my advice:

  1. BE SAVVY. Realize your kids will be influenced no matter how hard you try to protect them. Also realize that over-protecting could backfire on you.
  2. BE AN EXAMPLE for your children. Dads, conscientiously demonstrate respect for women at all times and in all ways. Moms, demonstrate respect for other women and yourself in the way you act and dress. Both moms and dads must demonstrate exceptional and wholesome choices in media consumption (that includes books and the Internet!).
  3. TALK to your kids in realistic terms about the influences that are out there waiting to nab their hearts away from Christ. Explain why they are dangerous and suggest ways in which they can avoid them. Discuss openly what immodest dress and behavior does to destroy the holiness of our human sexuality.
  4. LISTEN to your kids. Ask them their thoughts and impressions about what’s in the media and what they’re observing in the world around them. Be prepared to hear some things you may not want to hear, and take it in patiently and non-judgmentally.
  5. VALUE your kids – and lead them to value themselves. When our daughters – and sons – truly believe that they are highly valued and loved by God (and by us), they will stop seeking promiscuous ways to garner the love they crave. “You’re way better than that!” spoken with loving sincerity has a far greater influence than, “There’s no way you’re leaving this house dressed like that!”

Mothers and fathers play a vital role in the way their daughters view themselves sexually, and in the way their sons view women. When we take that responsibility seriously and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our little girls will stop choosing the “sexy” paper dolls and choose the modest ones instead.


Catholic wife, mother, author. Frequent contributor to National Catholic Register and Schoenstatt Family Magazine. Author of Ecce Mater Tua - Behold, Your Mother Marian Stations of the Cross and Waiting with Mary; Advent Reflections for Those Who Hate to Wait (available through my website at and When's God Gonna Show Up? due for release in spring/summer 2009 through Liguori Publications. Check out my blog at

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  • cece

    The ultimate irony! Did you read the advertisement to the right-side of your (great) article? “Invisible and sexy” are part of the advertisement.

  • Marge Fenelon

    Case in point. Perhaps CE can look into having that ad excluded? Glad you like the article!

  • catholicexchange

    Unfortunately, and depending on various factors (not everyone is seeing the same ads all the time), sometimes ads get onto Catholic Exchange that we never approved. About all we can do is manually go in and block them out–it would be helpful, whenever you see something like that, to email us and let us know the url of the site–don’t go to the site, of course! Just grab the address from the address bar. You would be doing a great service to the entire Catholic Exchange community! God bless!

  • taad

    What about the influence of fathers? Do fathers permit their daughters to wear inmodest clothing? Do fathers model purity, and talk about it? It isn’t just mothers. I remember both my own father and grandfather who spoke and set the example.

  • Marge Fenelon

    taad, you are right. This is for fathers, too (see #2 above). It’s just that girls look to their mothers as models for their own body image, and most often – not always -it’s the mom who does the body-image talks with daughters.

  • MM

    I disagree somewhat on how to raise your kids in a sexualized world. I homeschool. I do know of homeschooled kids who don’t turn out the way their parents had hoped. After all, there is free will. However, the number of homeschooled kids who do turn out as faithful Catholics is much much higher than the homeschooled ones that don’t keep the faith. I decided to homeschool to protect my kids’ innocence and give pass on our values before a school peer group or the secular media passed on theirs.. You can call it burying your head in the sand but I call it giving them a childhood. I sheltered them completely from what consider inappropriate influences. At 14 I finally gave my son the birds and the bees talk and it’s an ongoing education in theology of the body. He is an adolescent and it’s time to start making him aware of some of what goes on in the world and give him the Church’s teaching on those matters. We decided to send him to a public high school since he has a solid foundation and a strong faith. There is a time and place for everything. Kds are forced to grow up too fast today.. It’s okay to shelter your children!

  • Marge Fenelon

    It sounds like you’re doing a fantastic, conscientious job raising your kids. Congratulations! I’m sorry that you misunderstood my point. I did not say that all homeschoolers are head-in-the-sand parents. In fact, my husband and I home school are aren’t that way at all. Rather it’s parents who look at any method of education and child raising as a “silver bullet” that will guarantee protection of their kids without requiring further involvement or concern on their part. I also did say that we need to appropriately shelter our children – that’s what this article is all about.
    Thanks for your comment.

  • CO’N

    Marge, great article. Sheltering is what parents need to do and exampling a modest lifestyle in all things.
    My only daughter just graduated from public high, 9 years of pubic school experience total and she is modest and takes her studies seriously. She is not into the dating scene although she attended her senior prom with a “date,” a date as in a friend she has had from middle school and they had fun not any kind of “love” experience.
    Because in my area dating has become standard practice in elementary school whether they are Catholic school or public school kids and it is encourage by a large number of parents as “so cute” or “what else are they supposed to do,” I have dating rules. First elementary school and middle school dating are taboo. If you don’t want to marry the girl (for my 3 sons) or marry the guy for the rest of your life you have no business dating because that is what dating is about- finding if a person could be your spouse. Second condition is that my sons or the boy that wants to ask my daughter for a date must ask permission of me and my husband first. If the boy can’t do that to date my daughter, he really isn’t interested in her for the right reasons and if my sons are too chicken to do it, then they are not really interested in the girl enough and it is just a flirtation.
    My oldest son is 23 and he has only asked 2 girls to date him and he asked the girls mother in one case (no dad around) and he asked his current girlfriend’s grandparents (she lives with them). No one can date immodest dressers because I taught them it is a statment about how they feel about themselves and sexuality. Sexuality has been taught age appropriatly by me at home and in high school by the school with my input after a materials review.
    I raise genltemen and a lady and I am sure to call them by those titles in my home. We all play hard and loud but when we need manners we have them. Modesty in speech as well as dress and the all so importanat aversion of the eyes when someone’s dress is inapprorpriate- out of the room when “sexy” ads come on or pillows up when they were little.
    When my oldest goes out I always tell him remeber you are always a gentleman even if the lady doesn’t want you to be and remember that makes her not a very fine lady. He has a nice relationship and they both practice their faith and I am very proud of my oldest son for listening to me. His friends have taunted him over the years growing up and now they can’t believe how much freedom I give him and that allow him to date. I trust him and he thanks me. His friends have no parental trust. They were allowed anything they wanted and told to be real men and one unfortunatly has a child. Another can’t run his own finanaces, his father tells him how to spend his money and gives him an allowance from his hard earned money, he is 23 years old. Protection or shelter?
    It isn’t the school, Catholic or Public. It isn’t whether you home school or not. It is all about you as parents sheltering or ruling your kids through what ever situation you live in. Then little by little you let them go on to grow into being adults and you are there when they need you and you slowly give them the reins to living their own lives.
    I’m proud of my two oldest children. They are wonderful people not becuase of me but in spite of me. I gave them God and His way and even in my failures God had them turn out ok. They love Church and they respect human dignity. Two down and two to go…

  • Marge Fenelon

    CO’N, you’ve offered some great input. Thank you!

  • Jan

    Good article, and interesting. I homeschool(ed) my 8 children (ages 7-24) and while we have had children go through stages of “pushing the envelope” with how they want to dress and present themselves to the world, invariably they have come back to something more like what I wanted in the first place. I think this is largely because of the discretion I have tried to exercise in protecting them and allowing them “safe” exposure to other influences. Some of my friends think I’m too strict (read “head-in-the-sand”) and some think I’m too lax. The bottom line is, we have to realize that no one can tell us exactly what we need to do to raise our children well. We can all agree that we want our children to be modest, God-fearing, and well-adjusted individuals. How we get them to that point will vary, and I think we have to grant the parents’ their rights to do what they think best — after all, it is they who will have to answer to God for the actions they take — and remember that they have the graces from the sacrament of marriage to help them with that.

  • Romneyvoter

    with TV shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras”, is it any wonder? I had no idea there were folks like that in the world! Does anyone agree that it’s many times the mothers who do cause this by dressing and acting in such a sexualized way, and that some mothers (and fathers) are so thrilled that their kids are attractive to others (and not exhibiting gay characteristics!) that they encourage this behavior? Just a thought.

  • Proteios1

    Cn you post the link to the data you cited? I have not come across any stats examining the correlation of schooling method and retention of faith. Thanks in advance.

  • livethegoldenrule

    Sad, but no surprise. Look at Disney movie models–they’re like Barbies in unrealistic proportion, and gives children the message, sex sells