'They grow up too soon.' It's a phrase parents utter and hear often these days as they observe their young daughters or friends' daughters apply make-up and mimic the dress styles of their pop idols. This is often accompanied with light-hearted amusement and sometimes even with pride.
But parenting author and mother of two young girls, Tanith Carey, believes it's a phrase that should instil fear in all parents of girls.
Her book, Where Has My Little Girl Gone?, looks at the modern-day phenomenon of the so-called Lolita Effect, or the sexualisation of children in which girls often as young as seven are encouraged to dress and act like women.
It is filled with frightening examples of parents who appear to think it is okay for young girls to behave this way and even promote the fast-tracking of their young daughters into adulthood.
There is one mother who teaches her seven-year-old daughter to pole dance, another who happily pays for the cosmetic surgery which she believes will improve her daughter's chances in life, and one who spends HK$360 on spray tans, false nails and beauty treatments for her 13-year-old beauty queen daughter.
Carey points the finger of blame at celebrity culture and consumerism promoted via the internet and the media.
She warns this modern way of depriving our daughters of their childhoods puts them on the slippery slope to self-destructive behaviour, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
Carey dismisses the notion there is little we can do to stop the Lolita Effect and argues the first line of defence has to be the parents. The book gives advice on how parents can help their daughters grow into confident, independent women who are happy with who they are, rather than feeling they have to change themselves to take their place in society.
Much of her advice centres on building self-esteem and adopting a parenting style that is watchful and sets boundaries, but values children's independence and input. She says parents must be prepared to risk being unpopular with other parents for saying no to activities they feel are not age appropriate.
To some extent, Carey is preaching to the converted and the parents who read this book will be those who are already worried about the issue, rather than those who see this kind of behaviour as good fun or normal.
For Hong Kong parents of daughters, like myself, this book provided some comfort in that compared with their peers in the United States and Britain, girls here appear to live a more cocooned existence which allows them to stay little girls for just a little longer.
However, Carey's book does include a number of lessons worth learning for Hong Kong parents too, such as the importance of spending time with our children, being there when needed, how to praise them and encourage good choices, and communicate with them and help them make that difficult transition into adulthood.
Verdict: Thought-provoking, interesting read for any parent with tween and teen girls.
Where Has My Little Girl Gone? by Tanith Carey, Lion Hudson; HK$108 www.paddyfield.com