Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney Spears' younger sister, who plays the character Zoey on the popular Nickelodeon program "Zoey 101," has caused a commotion with news of her pregnancy.
The headlines this week that the 16-year-old young actress is pregnant, have created a dilemna for parents across the country.
"All that [news] is very hard to explain to a 9-year-old girl," parent Allison Davidson said. She has two daughters, ages 7 and 9, and a 12-year-old son. All of them watch "Zoey 101."
Spears' character has all the trappings of a role model. Zoey is a smart student, loyal friend, and the pretty girl who holds her own against the boys, so it's not surprising she is idolized by tens of thousands of young girls.
Davidson's son, bombarded by talk of Spears' pregnancy, told his family about it.
"I feel that my children are exposed to [sex] at a very early age," Davidson said.
She wasn't the only one who learned the news from her own child.
In another household, Nina Sunderland started to field questions from her child, who saw the news on the Internet.
"I'm going to have a long conversation. I haven't had it yet, but [my daughter] goes on the computer and on the Internet, and now she's asking me questions.
"We tell them the truth," Davidson said. "We try and educate them."
But as parents debate what to say and when to say it, many of their children are already buzzing with their own views.
On one Web site for young girls, a "Zoey 101" viewer wrote, "I'm 12, and my mom refuses to say anything about puberty or 'the talk' ... all my other friends know, so why can't I?"
Another young viewer blogged, "Me and my mom are just very sad for her ... She's gonna really have to step up, and give up half her life to take care of that baby!"
Gina Smith, a mother of two, expressed frustration.
"It is a shame, you know, I'd like to keep them innocent as long as possible."
How should you talk to your children about sex? The American Psychological Association (www.apa.org) has some tips, which we've provided below.
Tune In and Talk
Watch TV and movies with your daughters and sons. Read their magazines. Surf their Web sites. Ask questions. "Why is there so much pressure on girls to look a certain way?" "What do you like most about the girls you want to spend time with?" "Do these qualities matter more than how they look?" Really listen to what your kids tell you.
Girls who are overly concerned about their appearance often have difficulty focusing on other things. Clothes can be part of the distraction. If your daughter wants to wear something you consider too sexy, ask what she likes about the outfit. Ask if there's anything she doesn't like about it. Explain how clothes that require lots of checking and adjusting might keep her from focusing on school work, friends, and other activities.
If you don't like a TV show, CD, video, pair of jeans, or doll, say why. A conversation with your daughter will be more effective than simply saying, "No, you can't buy it or watch it." Support campaigns, companies, and products that promote positive images of girls. Complain to manufacturers, advertisers, television and movie producers, and retail stores when products sexualize girls.
Young people often feel pressure to watch popular TV shows, listen to music their friends like, and conform to certain styles of dress. Help your daughter to make wise choices among the trendy alternatives. Remind her often that who she is and what she can accomplish are far more important than how she looks.
Athletics and other extracurricular activities emphasize talents, skills, and abilities over physical appearance. Encourage your daughter to follow her interests and get involved in a sport or other activity.
You may feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality with your kids, but it's important. Talk about when you think sex is OK as part of a healthy, intimate, mature relationship. Ask why girls often try so hard to look and act sexy. Effective sex education programs discuss media, peer, and cultural influences on sexual behaviors and decisions, how to make safe choices, and what makes healthy relationships. Find out what your school teaches.
Help your kids to focus on what's really important: what they think, feel, and value. Help them to build strengths that will allow them to achieve their goals and develop into healthy adults. Remind your children that everyone's unique, and that it's wrong to judge people by their appearance.
Marketing and the media also influence adults. When you think about what you buy and watch, you teach your sons and daughters to do so, too.