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What's Wrong With This Outfit, Mom?

Parents -- sometimes without even realizing it -- put their daughters at risk when they camouflage these features by allowing them to dress in adult ways. Such dress prompts the child to imitate adult female behavior that she doesn't understand. This can short-circuit normal development. It can also encourage older children and adults to relate to these young girls as sexual beings, sometimes with tragic consequences.

My younger sister told me a story about visiting the home of friends when the teenage daughter's date arrived. The daughter came downstairs in a T-shirt that read, "Strippers do it with poles." The parents seemed nonplussed; it was the boy who said to them, "You're letting her go out of the house in that ?"

Some parents are just misguided when it comes to monitoring their daughters' dress. I will be the first to admit that mental health experts have contributed to the problem. A good example is the school of thought once prevalent among psychologists that even young kids need to have a voice in all decisions that affect them -- with the corollary that, if they marshal a particularly good argument, they can often get what they want. Another approach is to give children two choices, rather than telling them what they have to do. But my personal favorite is the zany idea that parents should never say "No," because it would be too negative! It isn't surprising that they also have a tough time telling their daughters, "You're not going out of this house in that outfit. End of subject."

Another even bigger problem I see is indecision: Parents lack confidence in their instincts and in their judgment. Previous generations had no trouble making hard and fast rules. Parents in those days looked like and conducted themselves as adults and role models; kids and teenagers wanted to grow up and get the perks of adult life as soon as possible. Therapists see the inverse today. There are lots of parents who are uncomfortable with their grownup role and want to be young again; their kids don't want to grow up, or wish to postpone it as long as possible.

There are definitely cases I see in which girls imitate their mothers' sexy style of dress, with their mothers' blessing. (Although there was one high school girl who confided that she was glad she didn't have a mother who looked like Goldie Hawn -- too tough an act to follow!) But the majority of mothers want their daughters to dress more conservatively but are afraid to take their daughters on. Fathers, too.

They make the mistake of thinking that a good relationship is largely conflict-free. One mother said to me, "I hate to rock the boat when she's a teenager; we got along so well when she was little." They don't want a child who complains about them to her friends and the rest of the world on her blog.

I've polled a number of therapist colleagues, and virtually everyone agreed: We almost never see autocratic, dictatorial parents today; it is far more common to see parents who have relinquished power, and kids who have assumed it. Which makes for very unhappy young people. They are petulant and angry; they lack respect for their parents because their parents haven't inspired respect through real leadership.

Without that leadership, kids have trouble recognizing lines of propriety. Boys don't know where the line is and where to stop; and girls -- or gurrrrrrrrls, as the new terminology puts it -- who have become accustomed to their deliberately outr styles of dress, are displaying increasingly aggressive sexual behavior.

One example of this aggression recently played out at a local private school, where it was charmingly dubbed "robbing the cradle." Two senior girls each solicited a freshman boy for sexual purposes by wearing a T-shirt to school with "I want (boy's name)" on it. It created quite a stir and bestowed some status on the younger boys in question. It also puts parents on alert that in our sexually predatory culture, parents also need to worry about safeguarding their boys from the girls, not just vice versa.

The girls who dress the most outrageously are often those most starved for adult male attention, first and foremost from their fathers. This happens most commonly with girls whose fathers have disappeared from their lives, perhaps following a divorce, or because their workaholic schedules leave them little time for their children. Children who are raised with attention and affection tend to identify with and admire their parents. This identification is the basis for both discipline and the transmission of values. Without it, parents can't do their job.

I often recommend that fathers be the parent to take the lead in setting limits on their daughters' dress, because opposite sex offspring typically cut that parent more slack. Fathers can say, "Honey, you can't wear that. I know teenage boys -- I was one!" A dad like this is looking out for his daughter and treating her as someone special.

While talk and reality shows and tell-all memoirs thrive and a majority of teenagers today say that they would like to be famous, there are still girls and women who value privacy and modesty. They reveal a quiet confidence, a different kind ofglamour. Even famous people can be modest. They don't have to be Britney Spears. Take Audrey Hepburn, who has no counterpart today. Part of her allure lay in the way she embodied humility and modesty. Yet she also conveyed spirit and originality and a strong sense of self.

Even though she worked in an industry that often promotes commonness, she was an uncommon woman. Even though our daughters live in a culture that clearly promotes coarseness, they can be uncommon, too.

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Patricia Dalton is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington.

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