When a cute, clean-cut Disney star like Miley Cyrus transforms herself into a raunchy, grown-up pop singer who feels "very confident being naked," parents of her childhood fans could be forgiven for wondering how to talk to their kids about the metamorphosis.
But family and media observers say the whole Miley Cyrus episode is a reminder that open communication with children from an early age can help them learn how to interpret the frenzied media world around them.
'The sexualization of childhood has been underway for a long time and each parent is going to navigate that relative to their own limits and sensibilities.' - Nora Spinks
"One of the primary functions that a family has is to socialize and support their children to navigate everything associated with growing up," says Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family.
"Part of that is understanding and interpreting what they see and what they hear."
And sometimes, she suggests, that may include a transformation into adulthood that childhood minds may not yet be able to understand.
With Cyrus — the former wholesome Hannah Montana star whose Bangerz CD is released today — there’s been quite a transformation, with everything from her recent bump-and-grind performance at the MTV Video Music Awards to an interview telling a British paper she's "very confident being naked."
Spinks says parents can help children who might be uncertain about just what has happened to Hannah.
"Children are going to need to understand that there are certain things that adults do and certain things that children do and some things that adults do children don’t."
Talk with the kids
And, Spinks says, they’ll need help to “understand that what they see isn’t necessarily OK for them to mimic or OK for them to want to copy.”
The key to doing that, Spinks says, lies in early and ongoing two-way communication with children, which includes "being clear on what’s negotiable and what’s non-negotiable.”
While Cyrus, now 20, has put herself in the spotlight recently, the issues her transformation to adulthood raises for families are hardly new — think Britney Spears, and so on. And no two parents will necessarily deal with it in the same way.
“The sexualization of childhood has been underway for a long time and each parent is going to navigate that relative to their own limits and sensibilities,” says Spinks.
“It’s up to us individually and collectively to set limits with our kids.
“Because there’s so much out there and it’s so readily accessible … kids need to be really savvy consumers of online material and they need to know how to determine: ‘That’s inappropriate, turn it off.’ ”
To encourage kids to be savvy media consumers, Spinks and Matthew Johnson, education director for MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization, both suggest that parents make sure they are aware of what their children are watching on TV or taking in online.
Sitting down with them on the couch with the laptop or in front of the television is a good way to start.
“A big thing to make sure kids are aware of is the way in which media products — and that includes the images of celebrities — are constructed and manufactured for commercial purposes,” says Johnson.
“It helps kids to understand that what they see someone like Miley Cyrus doing on an awards show or in a video doesn’t necessarily have any connection to her as a person.”
'Any parent or any teacher knows that lectures just go in one ear and out the other.' - Matthew Johnson
Johnson doesn’t suggest parents lecture their kids. Instead, ask questions or seek their opinions on what they are watching.
“Any parent or any teacher knows that lectures just go in one ear and out the other,” he says.
“It’s not getting [children] to think a particular way and it’s not necessarily getting them to not listen to a particular kind of music or not watch a particular video.
“It’s getting them into the habit of thinking critically and asking questions about the media that they watch or otherwise consume.”
How that’s done will obviously vary by ages. Spinks likens it to the experience of kids and the clothes they wear.
With "your three-year-old, you’re going to put out two shirts and let them pick one of those two shirts. Your teenager, you’re going to let them pick one shirt out of their entire collection," she says.
'More complex decisions'
"As they get older, they’re able to make more and more complex decisions but the more you teach them how to make decisions, the easier it will be help them understand and interpret the consequences of their decisions going forward."
In the Cyrus case, Johnson suggests that for smaller children — age eight or nine, for example — parents would want to stress "that it is all just made up, because it’s very difficult with younger kids.
“They really do have this trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality when it comes to things like ... an awards show."
For teens, Johnson suggests, it could be a deeper discussion, asking them why they think Cyrus did what she did.
“Getting kids to look at the way media are constructed and … the commercial pressures behind them, can be a really helpful way of helping them understand that this isn’t just reality and that this isn’t just someone growing up.
“This is someone who is under tremendous economic pressure to fit a particular role and to establish herself as an adult star.”
When it comes to children’s exposure to media and the choices made around what they watch or absorb online, Spinks says the conversations about what’s appropriate and not appropriate at home, school or in the community are much simpler if they begin at an early age.
"It is much easier to start having those conversations when your kids are six, seven and eight than when they’re 12 and 13 … when you’re starting to get into the ‘You’re-not-the-boss-of-me’ stage. Well, yes, as a parent, you actually are and there are limits that parents need to set."
Laying the groundwork
Johnson also sees virtue in carrying on the dialogue over a period of time.
"It really helps to have had these conversations early so that you already have a lot of the groundwork done so that when it starts to get into slightly more uncomfortable topics, you’re not suddenly making a new conversation. It’s part of an ongoing conversation."
For younger children, Johnson suggests curating what they watch.
"Besides controlling the content, which of course is good, you’re also modelling the idea that media use is an active choice, that you choose to watch a TV show or a movie rather than just sitting down and turning on the TV."
And that, he says, can stand children in good stead as they grow up.
"Sooner or later they’re going to be out on their own so that’s why it’s so important that we develop those habits of thinking critically about what we see, asking questions."