“You look sexy!” exclaims my neighbor to my 6-year-old daughter.
I laugh uncomfortably because though I know she’s showing some knee, I’d never call her sexy. She’s cute. Kids are cute. They’re not doing anything to warrant sexual attention. My daughter looks at me confused because we’ve had conversations about the word “sexy” in the past, and I tell her that it’s only for adults. Now she’s wondering if she is sexy because that’s what the neighbor just told her.
Once she leaves, I immediately begin lecturing my daughter on how people are different, but “sexy” is still a word that should never be used on kids.
A few hours later, I’m still thinking about it, wondering if I should say something to my neighbor. The truth is, I work hard to keep my daughter in a kid’s world. I don’t let her watch Barbie: Life In The Dreamhouse because Barbie is dating Ken, and little girls don’t need to be drug into the dating world. She doesn’t watch or play with Monster’s High dolls because those girls wear miniskirts and shoes with 5-inch heels. I’m team Doc McStuffins all day because she’s a 6-year-old doctor who is not even thinking about dating or wearing clothes that make her look “sexy.” When I think of my neighbor getting another opportunity to plant the sex seed in her brain, I start breaking out in hives.
Should I tell my neighbor it’s inappropriate to call my daughter sexy? I ask psychologist Dr. Kristin Carothers, the following day via email.
After confirming that kids should NOT be called sexy—”We don’t want to encourage children to be sexual beings before it is developmentally appropriate because they may become confused about the word and meaning”—she tells me that I should definitely speak up if I don’t like the term she’s using to describe my kid.
“It might be helpful to provide the person with more appropriate terms that you prefer such as cute, beautiful or pretty that could convey the meaning for children and do not have sexual overtones,” Dr. Carothers said.
That makes a lot of sense. I suppose the real issue is not whether I should speak up or not—of course I should, especially since this woman spends time with my kids when I’m running late and can’t pick them up from school on time—it’s about not wanting to hurt her feelings. I’m thinking that in her world—we’re talking about a mom of five in her early 50s who started having kids when she was just 13 years old—calling a kid “sexy” is a compliment. Perhaps she grew up being called sexy herself.
A few days later, when my neighbor and I were walking home from dropping our kids off at school, I bring up the subject.
“You know when you called my daughter ‘sexy’ the other day?”
“Well, I like words like pretty and cute. I don’t want her thinking about being sexy at this age.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” she says, getting a little defensive. “That’s just how we talk. I call my grandson sexy all the time, and he’s 2.”
“Yeah, I know,” I answer as casually as possible. “But we’re all different and that’s just how I feel.”
“Okay,” she says, and we walk the rest of the way home in silence.
Were her feelings hurt? Maybe. But as a mom, my first commitment is always to my kids.
This article first appeared on Essence.com on Sept. 16, 2016