Whatever Happened to Childhood?

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Whatever Happened to Childhood?

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The shows my kids watch are not exactly like The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family,” sighs Buffalo Grove, Illinois, resident, Ellen Shapiro. Favorite programs of her 16-, 14- and 12-year-olds are The OC, Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill. Her concern is that “in all those shows the young people are always hooking up, they’re in serious relationships, and there’s a lot of talk about sex. When the kids watch these shows, they think they need to be in serious relationships too.”

She knows many young teens and even some preteens with boyfriends and girlfriends. “The thinking among the kids is that you really need to have a boyfriend or girlfriend from the sixth grade on—at least if you want to be cool,” Shapiro adds. This, she says, is so different from when she was a young teen. “I was just happy to go out with my friends and have fun. I wasn’t thinking about pairing up with someone.”

Child with a gun

Topping the list of Elkind’s concerns is the type of entertainment and other products being marketed today to young children. As a result, “children in the 8- to 12-year-old age bracket are becoming more like teenagers, leaning more and more toward teen styles, teen attitudes and teen behavior,” he observed. Sex, violence and foul language formerly relegated to late-night viewing and R-rated movies are expected fixtures in everyday TV.

The adult issues his 8- and 10-year-old children—increasing threats of violence in particular—have to face also dismay Brad Johnson, a father in Orland Park, Illinois. “My second grader’s class recently took a field trip to the police station to hear a talk about safety measures in case there’s a school shooting or terrorist attack. There’s also routine ‘lockdown’ drills at the elementary school,” he relates. “My kids are having to confront a lot more really heavy issues than I ever did at their age.”

For Barb Matusik of Lake Villa, Illinois, the adult world has invaded the lives of her three children (ages 7, 10 and 11) by making them feel much more pressured than what she experienced as a child. “School has become more stressful at an early age for kids,” she observes. “They’re doing topics like algebra and geometry in elementary school, which I didn’t get until high school. They also have a lot more homework at their age than I did.”

“My kids are having to confront a lot more really heavy issues than I ever did at their age.”

Add to this all the extra activities kids are encouraged to sign up for. Matusik knows kids whose weeknights and weekends are filled with one extracurricular activity after another. “The kids can’t have fun doing extracurricular activities because they have all this homework they know they need to be doing—and the activities cut into their homework time and make it harder to get their academic work done,” Matusik says.

At first, these may seem like unrelated concerns by parents who are just reflecting on “the good old days” of their childhood—but there’s a lot more to it than that. These examples illustrate the depth and scope of a serious problem in our nation: Children are growing up much too fast, and the carefree innocence of childhood is becoming a thing of the past.

“Too often kids are expected to withstand adult-level pressure.”

An Associated Press report declared that 10-year-olds today act and think like 15-year-olds did just a decade ago. In other words, behaviors that would have been typical of teenagers are now common among “tweens”—kids that are between the ages of 8 and 12.

David Elkind, senior resident scholar at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 25th edition, 2006), has been very outspoken about this trend. “Our society is compressing childhood more and more to where children are not children for very long,” he says. “Children are under tremendous pressure to ‘be mature’ and to ‘grow up’ when they have not had the chance to develop emotional maturity.” What changes in our modern world have caused this loss of childhood? Elkind believes it comes down to three main factors:

Media hard sell

“There’s a tremendous pressure in our society for children to become ‘sexually precocious’ at a younger and younger age,” says William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Take Back Your Kids (2000). He sees this trend in the sexual images that are portrayed in magazine articles, television and movies, video games and in music videos that are marketed to preteens.

“Children are exposed to cable television and MTV, so they get into the rock videos at very young ages, which is really adult-oriented in terms of sexuality,” Doherty observes. “A lot of sit-coms have teenage characters in them who are sexually active. Many of the magazines read by preteen and adolescent girls regularly have articles in them about how to turn guys on or what guys want in bed. And obviously there are a lot of sexually explicit websites that children can look at.” This is quite a contrast from just a generation ago, he adds. “It used to be that kids would have to go out of their way to find these sorts of materials, but now they just need to turn on their television or go to the Internet.”

With so much sex and adult story lines in the media, many kids have their minds on sex and adult relationships long before they get into high school. Sometimes parents will encourage their young children to date as well.

“It used to be that kids would have to go out of their way to find these sorts of materials, but now they just need to turn on their television or go to the Internet.”

Heidi Fitch, assistant principal at Hadley Junior High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, knows parents of elementary-aged children who have set up chaperoned “date nights” for their kids. “Parents think it’s cute, because their 10-year-old child has a date and they’re getting them a limo,” she says. The trouble is, “this pushes kids into a different kind of relationship with the opposite sex early, so that they can’t continue that friendship field as long as they should,” Fitch says. Once children start seeing the opposite sex as romantic interests, they lose out on that special time in life to just be friends with the opposite sex, according to Fitch.

Schools too have had a part to play. It’s not unusual for elementary and middle schools to sponsor dances for fifth and sixth graders. “Instead of just having activity nights, they’re kind of promoting the idea that kids should be paired up and doing adolescent type of activities,” observes Sharon Dunham, sixth grade counselor at Hadley. This is more than most fifth and sixth graders can handle, she says. “They’re coming from an experience where they were having recess the previous year and now all of sudden they feel this need to have a boyfriend or girlfriend,” Dunham says. “It pushes them out of childhood and I don’t think they’re ready [for] it, especially in the sixth grade.”

Pressure to compete

Another factor is the overscheduling of childhood. Many parents worry that if they don’t enroll their kids in a lot of extracurricular activities, their children will be missing out or be left behind. Sometimes, though, parents involve their children in so many outside activities that they really have very little time left just to play, have fun and be kids.

Marie Schalke, principal of Twin Groves Middle School in Buffalo Grove, says she knows elementary- and middle-school-aged children who take part in two or more extracurricular activities each day after school. “Some kids have one activity after another all the time. They may have basketball early in the evening and when that’s over, they go to hockey—on the same night,” she notes. Weekends, too, are often very busy, going from one sporting event or other activity to the next.

Performing well has become so important, that many parents enlist the services of private coaches and personal trainers to help their children succeed. Often, as was noted in the beginning of the article, kids have to really push themselves to take part in all the extracurricular activities and still do well in school.

All this fear and anxiety takes away a child’s ability to be carefree and have a normal childhood.

“The adult competitive world has invaded childhood,” Doherty says. “Children’s schedules are such that they are living with a lot of stress. Parents are expecting their kids to have responsibilities that adults should have—in this case, to live these schedules, to multitask, to prioritize time, and to be efficient in the use of time.” He notes that teachers often tell him that students are coming to school tired every day. “Children should not have to have so many responsibilities that they’re always exhausted.”

Kids are also feeling pressure to perform well academically. “We live in a very competitive world,” says Linda Marks, Ph.D., superintendent of Golf School District 67 in Morton Grove, Illinois. “Most parents today want their children to go onto college and they want them to go to good colleges, which means that they have to get good grades. That puts a certain pressure on children that their parents probably didn’t have.” She says parents are telling their children at a very early age: “You have to get good grades.” “You need to get into the accelerated classes.” and “You have to get into a good college.” Marks says that most of the present adult population, when they were growing up, “probably didn’t hear that kind of thing until they were in high school. But today, parents are probably way more aggressive about making sure their children are doing well in school.”

Without a long enough childhood, children do not learn many important relationship and life skills.

Certainly, it is important that parents encourage their children to do the best they can, adds Gary Hill, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of Clinical Services at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, but “too often kids are expected to withstand adult-level pressure.” He hears about a lot of kids, who are expected to start college prep classes in the sixth grade, which he believes is way too soon. He also knows of kids—as young as third grade—who feel so much pressure to do well on national educational tests like the NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) and the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test) that they suffer nervous stomachs and headaches during testing week. “Society is basically demanding kids achieve at an earlier age, which is in forcing them to take on more responsibility than they may be ready for and in effect grow up faster,” Hill says.

News ad nauseam

A third factor taking away from childhood is the 24-7 cable and Internet news coverage that many households have access to nowadays. “It is much harder to filter frightening news stories away from kids compared to a generation ago when many families may have had only one television with just three channels, and then, there was just the one hour of news in the evening,” notes Kyle Sieck, seventh grade counselor at Hadley Junior High. He knows kids at his school that watched Saddam Hussein’s execution video. “It is absolutely crazy to think that someone at this age has been exposed to something like that,” he says.

It can also be helpful to set aside a regular time each day when you always talk with your children.

“Children today are seeing too much of the negative, often sensationalistic and frightening news events when they’re too young to handle it,” adds Elkind. He believes that the 24-hour coverage of the Iraq War and 9/11, for instance, served only to scare children and put another level of strain on them: “This news can be hard enough on adults to watch, but we can usually handle it. It’s too much, though, for little children.”

For one thing, young children might not understand that the events being reported on the news are hundreds or thousands of miles away, or that they’re isolated occurrences. “If they see too many negative news stories on television, they may start to feel that the violence is all around them in their own town and feel frightened when they really don’t need to be,” says Nancy Lashbrook, social worker department chair for District 54 in Schaumburg, Illinois, and a social worker at Hoover Elementary School. All this fear and anxiety takes away a child’s ability to be carefree and have a normal childhood, she says.

In many households, family members are each looking at a computer or watching a television by themselves in their own room, and this adds to the problem. “Young children especially will often have trouble with reality and fantasy anyway, and if there’s not an adult with them to explain what they just heard, oftentimes their minds will make it into something bigger or scarier than it really needs to be,” Lashbrook says.

Does it matter?

Okay, kids in our society are growing up faster these days than they did in past generations. But, you might ask, what’s really the big deal if a 10-year-old lives or acts like a 15-year-old?

There are many reasons why children should not be rushed into growing up. First and foremost, childhood provides them the time they need to mature and learn critical lessons. Without a long enough childhood, children do not learn many important relationship and life skills.

A big part of childhood is being able to spend time playing with peers. This is very important, Elkind says, because “it gives children the opportunity to learn about themselves, to create and to innovate, and to learn how to make independent judgments. They also learn mutual respect and how to work with others.”

Children who are hurried out of childhood still miss out on a lot of the simple pleasures of growing up.

Adds Doherty, “There are developmental ‘tasks’ at different stages of a child’s life. Children have plenty of years ahead of them to face the tasks and developmental challenges of adolescence and adulthood. Childhood is a time to be mastering what they need to master as a child—to learn at school to relate to a peer group, to be part of a family, to learn to be with siblings, and to play. The consumer role, the sexual role, the competitive ‘career pursuit’ role—developmentally those are meant to come later, when a person’s brain and body are developed well enough to handle them. But the child’s brain and body are not developed well enough to handle these pressures.”

Children who are rushed to grow up before they are ready or who have too many adult-level pressures put on them may develop stress-related health problems such as nervousness, hyperactivity, eating and sleeping disorders, and headaches and stomach problems.

But even if they don’t develop any of these problems, children who are hurried out of childhood still miss out on a lot of the simple pleasures of growing up, of innocent fun and happy experiences that they should be able to look back on when they are adults.

“Play gives children a sense of enjoyment that they can call upon later in life. When they’re adults and feeling down or stressed, they can remember those happy, carefree times when they were children,” Elkind notes. “These childhood experiences give us a storehouse of memories that we can fall back on when we’re adults. But when we overwork and overpressure our kids, they don’t develop that storehouse of happy memories.”

Children who are rushed around all the time and don’t have enough time to play and rest may not even know how to relax when they become adults. “We’re teaching our children to be harried and continually busy and they’re not going to know how to just sit still and enjoy a quiet moment,” says Dayna Prochaska, a social worker at Lincoln Prairie School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

Prochaska also warns of the importance of one’s own example: “If you lead a frenetic lifestyle because you’re overwhelmed with your own work responsibilities, your kids are learn by your example what you think is important.”

Preserving childhood

Knowing this, what’s a parent to do? As a parent, you can help your child grow up at his or her own pace. Here are some suggestions for preserving childhood for your kids and keeping them from growing up too fast:


Stay in touch with your child’s world. Familiarize yourself with what’s going on in your children’s lives so that you can know whether or not they’re growing up too fast. You may be able to offset some of the pressures and influences.

For example, read their magazines and books to learn what their age group is concerned about. Watch movies and television programs with your kids and listen to some of their music CDs and their favorite radio stations. Get to know your children’s friends, their parents and your children’s teachers, coaches and school counselors; they can tell you what your children do and talk about when they’re away from home and also give you a better idea of what kids are like in your children’s age group.

Keep the communication channels open. Make time to talk with your children every day, no matter how busy you or your children may be. When your child comes to you to talk, stop whatever you are doing to listen. It can also be helpful to set aside a regular time each day when you always talk with your children, such as during breakfast or dinner, or right after they get home from school. Or you might want to cook dinner with your children and talk then, or take a walk together every evening after dinner. Starting this kind of regular communication early in your child’s life will foster better communication when he or she is a teenager.

Talk about news events—but know how much your child can handle. If you have young children, limit how much of the really intense or unsettling television news coverage you allow them to see. It’s best to watch footage of these types of news stories in another room, away from your children, or after your children have gone to bed.

Of course, “if it’s a really big story in the news, such as the type of coverage that was given to the collapse of the World Trade Center or the Iraq War,” Elkind says, “you won’t be able to hide it from your children, and neither should you try to do that. But your kids don’t need to hear all the gory details either.” Try to judge how much information they can handle, and then explain it in terms they’ll understand.

If you’re concerned that your children are hearing too much of the “heavy” news stories being discussed at school, voice your concerns to your child’s teacher or your local parent-teacher association.

Set limits. If your child wants to go to a social function or see a movie that you believe is inappropriate, don’t be afraid to say no. “Your kids need you to be their parent,” says Emmah Welsh, eighth grade counselor at Hadley Junior High. “You cannot be your child’s friend. They have plenty of kids to be their friends.” If your children don’t understand your reasons for saying no, it’s okay to simply say, “Because I said so.” That’s gone out of favor, Welsh admits, “but at some point you have to make it clear that you’re the adult and you have the final decision.” You shouldn’t be afraid to say no or put your foot down when your children want something you don’t feel is best for them, she says.

Be willing to go against the tide. There may be times when your child is about the only one in his or her class who hasn’t seen a particular movie or isn’t going to a couples dance. Not only is your child likely begging to go along with the crowd, but you may be getting flak from other parents as well. They may say to you, “Well, why don’t you let your kids watch that movie? There’s nothing wrong with it.”

For the sake of your children, you need to stand your ground and do what you know is right.

“Your kids are going to get peer pressure from their friends, and you may get peer pressure from your kids’ friends’ parents,” Welsh says. It can feel like a lonely battle at times, but for the sake of your children, you need to stand your ground and do what you know is right.

“You’re probably not doing a good job as a parent nowadays if your kids don’t think you’re mean,” notes Doherty. “If you just do what all the other parents are doing, your kids won’t think you’re mean, but they’re going to lose their childhood.”

Simplify your schedules. Don’t think you have to run all over town every night, transporting your children from one activity to the next, just because everyone else is doing it. Know how many activities your child can handle (and you too, since you’re most likely to be the chauffeur) and keep it at that. Be sure to allow for some downtime every day.

“It’s probably the relaxed evenings at home when you played board games with your children or read books together that they’re going to look back on with fond memories when they’re adults, not the science camp or swimming lessons you enrolled them in,” Hill says.

If changes need to be made in your family’s lifestyle, start implementing them today for your sake and your child’s. After all, “your time with your kids is really very short,” Marks says, “It sounds cliché, but kids do grow up very quickly.”

Try to make the most of this stage of life while you can, and to ensure your kids don’t grow up TOO quickly!