What do you do when your child's role model grows up too fast -- and your child wants to try to catch up? In the Parenthood is in the pages of today's Boston Globe, with a story about kids and parents who are disillusioned about Disney star Miley Cyrus's transformation from goofy tween-age Hannah Montana to Britney-Madonna-Lady Gaga-like sexpot. (You can read the story here, and also view a slideshow of how her image has changed since 2006.)
I turned to Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development expert, for some advice on how parents can help their kids cope with the change. Here's what she had to say:
"Many 17-year-old girls experiment with clothes, make up, and even sex. So why is Miley’s behavior so shocking to parents and fans?" she asks, before providing the answer. "As a childhood role model, she became a girl-next-door icon. It can be challenging for parents and fans to watch her new 'untamed' persona stomp out the quirky, reliable, relatable Hannah Montana from the past."
Cyrus herself has made it clear that she has left her squeaky-clean image behind. "I'm not trying to be 'slutty,'" the 17-year-old told the Associated Press recently.
The skimpy outfits are what she feels most comfortable in, she added. "I feel more comfortable dressing with a little less, which is just how I've always been. Now I'm able to do that a little more freely and, also, I've just grown up to be this way, too. It's not like this was me five years ago. It's me now, presently."
If your teen is trying to dress and act like the new "adult" Miley Cyrus, "Don’t panic," Silverman advises. "The more you push back and yell out your disgust, the more your daughter may cling to what you hate. She’s a teenager, after all!" Instead, take the opportunity to clarify your own family's values, and point out that we all have a choice in how we present ourselves. Ask open-ended questions that spark discussion ("How does this new image compare with what you used to love about Hannah Montana?") rather than pass judgement ("Do you think she looks inappropriate?") and really listen to what your kids have to say -- you may be surprised to find that they're not that impressed by their idol's changes.
Silverman offered several great tips for talking to your tweens and preteens about role models, marketing, and Miley Cyrus's metamorphosis:
1. Expose your daughter to many role models -- both real and in the media. Role models should be of many different ages, sizes, and backgrounds, so your child has more than one person to emulate.
2. Educate your daughters in media literacy. It's important to make sure children know how media can be used in negative and positive ways. As they get older, teach them about how some media is used inappropriately to sexualize girls and create an “image.” This is what's happening with Miley -- and while it's a choice for her, it's not the only choice performers can make. Discuss the idea of image and marketing, and ask them what they think Cyrus is trying to do. "What garners attention is not the typical, it's the outrageous, it's the edgy," Silverman explains. Celebrities aren't trying to get positive attention, "it's about any attention you can get. What sells?"
3. Underscore your values. If you don’t want your child following in these footsteps, make sure your daughter knows how you feel. Tell her what you like and what you don’t and why you think that way. In light of those values, if her best friend started acting this way, what advice would she give?
4. Brainstorm alternatives. If Miley is interested in changing her image from one of a child star to an adult, what would your daughter suggest? Is this the only way to convey that she is not a child anymore? This can be a fun way to open up the possibilities with your child -- and get their creative input. Have them give a magazine spread a makeover, and see what they come up with.
5. Define what an empowered, confident, bold, beautiful girl looks like. If the definition is out there about what a girl is supposed to be -- and you don't agree with it -- help your sons and daughters redefine it. Make sure your daughters understand that their bodies are so much more than something to look at. Martial arts can teach girls that their bodies can be strong and powerful, not just sexy.
6. Discuss what it means to be a role model. As a leader, what responsibilities does your child have to those who look up to her? Does she have to stay the same, or can she change?
And remember: Your children don't have to stick with the same role model forever. "Just because Miley was a role model in the past," Silverman points out, "doesn’t mean she needs to be a role model now."