The age-old question has taken on new meaning in an era of bikinis for babies and skinny jeans for 6-year-olds channeling Suri Cruise.
Across the U.S., mommy bloggers, educators, and parents say the mature designs for little girls are hard to avoid these days, with even stores such as Forever 21 offering to dress their darling daughters.
"What a challenge it is for a parent to hold your ground," said Cynthia Kalogeropoulos, principal of Grove Elementary School in Barrington, Ill. "I don't even know if parents have a choice. You're not going to find a pair of Bermudas."
Retail experts confirm that parents aren't imagining the trend. While many adult clothing makers entered the children's apparel industry between 2002 and 2006 offering trendsetting designs not seen before for that age group, the economic downturn put growth of the market on hold. That momentum has picked up again as the economy bounces back, prompting pint-size designer duds at boutiques and trendy knock-offs at discount stores, according to Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD Group in New York.
And sociologists monitoring the trend say fashion for young girls has never been more provocative. In a study released last year, Kenyon College researchers found that a third of the clothing at 15 popular stores in the United States had "sexualizing" characteristics, revealing or emphasizing body parts and sexiness, according to Sarah K. Murnen, who cowrote the study.
"You can walk into any teen/adult retailer and you begin to see how they're taking it younger and younger," Cohen said. "I shake myself in disbelief and say, 'Did I just see that?' It's a 4-year-old dressing like she should be at a college bar."
Seven years ago, trend watchers at Synclaire Brands in New York noticed an untapped market in children's apparel. Company officials were convinced that as technology and media exposed children to more than ever before, buyers would jump at the chance to buy little-girl shoes bearing the names and designs of high-profile women's designers Michael Kors, Stuart Weitzman, and Cole Haan.
"I have an 8- and a 10-year-old. They know things that I'm shocked that they know," said Evan Cagner, president of Synclaire Brands. "I think it's just how information moves, quite honestly, and they're just more aware of what they're wearing."
The company's new venture took off - Synclaire Brands now offers dozens of women's-inspired shoes in sizes newborn to 11 - and was soon joined by a rush of other companies eager to cash in, Cagner said.
Shoppers encouraged the growth by spending money on their children instead of themselves, another trend that surfaced during the recession, said Cohen, the retail analyst, who noted that shoppers spent $12 billion on clothing for 5- to 10-year-olds in the last year, a growth of 4.5 percent. Women's clothing sales remained flat in the same period.
At Water Tower Place in Chicago, shoppers used to rely on anchors such as Macy's or the American Girl Place for children's clothing. Today, adult stores such as Billabong and Adidas have added kids' lines, said Katie Lindsay, marketing manager.
"As times have evolved, the products that they're making for children are also evolving," Lindsay said. "I think moms want the opportunity to dress their children exactly how they're dressed."
But while Cagner insists that Synclaire Brands goes to great lengths to design shoes that look like women's but keep little girls in mind, companies that don't make the same efforts - or, even worse, go out of their way to push the envelope - have become a common complaint among parents.
Jennifer Gersten of Barrington Hills, Ill., was alarmed when she began taking note of the miniskirts and midriff-baring tops sold at her 9-year-old daughter Eleah's favorite stores.
"I have to go shopping without her so I have a little bit more control over what she is drawn to," said Gersten. "It's not her fault. She's just drawn to what everyone else wears."
Laura Kleyweg, 40, of LaGrange, Ill., surprised herself by giving her 9-year-old daughter a serious talk about her body and being conscious of showing skin when Ellen was in the second grade.
"I'm hopefully laying some good ground rules to start respecting her body," Kleyweg said.
And, as school started back up at Grove Elementary in Barrington, principal Kalogeropoulos made sure a box of extra clothes in the nurse's office was ready for students who might show up in an outfit that showed a little too much or sent the wrong message.
"The fleeting years of childhood, you have that little portal of time to just be carefree and innocent, and to have that robbed and shortened, even by a year? It's so hard to imagine," Kalogeropoulos said.
After noticing a steady stream of parental rants on this subject online, Jessica Ashley, who writes a popular parenting blog on babblefish.com, posted helpful tips on how to keep children both fashionable but appropriate for their age in today's shopping world.
First, Ashley suggests sticking with well-established children's clothing companies, which are less likely to try flashy new looks because they have an image to uphold. She also recommends developing clear-cut wardrobe rules for your family, explaining not just what your kids can't wear but also why.
"Pay attention to what you're allowing on a regular basis," Ashley said. "When is your daughter being sexualized by the clothes that she wears when she's not even aware that's going on?"
Keeping your own standards in mind is important, especially because at today's stores, the styles can pull you in when you least expect it, said Kristi Stec, 31, of Chicago.
Earlier this summer, Stec took her 3-year-old daughter to a popular high-end children's clothing store in search of shoes. At first, she was tickled to find a pair of wedge-heeled sandals next to the store's regular Mary Janes and sneakers.
But when she fastened them to Savannah's feet, Stec knew her daughter was years away from runway looks.
"You definitely get tempted," Stec said. "But she couldn't even walk in them. She doesn't care what her image is. She's not trying to attract boys. She just wants to have fun."