05/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Not So Fast! Give Your Little Girl a Chance to Be a Little Girl

Len Simonian is the Founder of The Only Hearts Club.

How "fast" is your daughter growing up? Faster than you may think, or would like. When talking about how girls are growing up today, a common saying goes something like, "six is the new nine, and 10 is the new 13," and so on. Girls are "growing up" far before they reach their teenage years, and the time frame appears to have shifted dramatically in the last several years. What can you do to slow down the process a little bit, celebrate girlhood, and let her experience the innocence and joy being a child? Parents have wondered, and worried, about this for a long time.

Generations ago, parents' may have been concerned about their college-aged daughters remaining "pure." As time passed, a new generation of parents fretted over their teenage, high school-aged daughters' innocence. But few, if any, parent thought to worry about these sorts of things for an eight or 10-year-old daughter. They were still "little girls," after all. They were either at school or at home, safe with their parents. Their little friends were equally innocent, so these girls were not even aware of things like drugs, alcohol and sex. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

There are at least three major factors that have combined to change this. First, with the Internet and 600 channels of cable TV, children have much greater access to information, images and messages that were in the past not easily accessible. Much of what they see includes images and messages that many parents would deem too mature for young children. Second, companies market items and messages to young girls that were previously considered inappropriate - from clothing companies that sell thong underwear to seven-year-old girls, to toy companies that sell fashion dolls wearing leather miniskirts and thigh-high boots. Third, cultural norms appear to have changed. Things that were once considered unacceptable, even outrageous, are slowly becoming accepted - and parents are complicit in this. Who, after all, is buying these thongs? Not the seven year old.

The manifestation of the above is more than disconcerting. Many pediatricians now advise parents to have "the sex talk" with their daughters before they are 10 years old, because sexual activity is starting as young as sixth grade. A recent study by the American Psychological Association's Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls noted that girls as young as six and seven years of age are now commonly concerned about whether they look "sexy" because this is what they have learned is the most important thing about them.

So how can we stem the tide? You, as a parent, have to do it. If you really care about your daughter enjoying and experiencing girlhood for as long as she can, and emerging as a well-adjusted and confident tween and teenager, then guide her and help her when she is young. Most importantly, don't add fuel to the fire by reinforcing that what is being marketed to her is normal or acceptable. If you don't think it's right and don't approve, then make sure she knows that. It won't be easy and it will be an ongoing effort, fraught with challenges and disputes. Remember, your daughter is in a world where everything she sees is telling her to grow up fast and start thinking like a young woman. And many of her friends will ridicule her for not being "cool" like them.

Guiding and protecting your daughter does not mean sheltering her in a bubble. It means not buying her the revealing short shorts that "all the other girls are wearing." It means monitoring what she is doing on the Internet and watching on TV. It means looking at her friends and what sort of influence they have on your daughter. It means proactively looking for good alternatives. Don't just buy your little girl the doll "everyone else is buying." Buy her a doll that she'll love and that is wholesome and gives her a positive image and message about girlhood, such as an age-appropriate Only Hearts Club doll.

My wife and I have a 12-year-old daughter, and the above are some of the things we try to do. My daughter does all the things that many 12-year-olds do these days. She has a cell phone, surfs the Internet, watches TV, reads magazines, loves fashion...and she also has boundaries. She doesn't just get to see, do or wear whatever she wants. She talks with us about what she sees out there and we discuss what we believe is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. It is not a perfect science and it is not always easy. But it can make a difference and it is much, much better than the alternative. Becoming a "teenager" starts much earlier for your daughter today. She has her whole life ahead of her to be a woman, and she will be grown up before you know it. Help her enjoy being a girl for as long as she can. She'll thank you for it later.