Cheated out of Childhood

KAY S. HYMOWITZ

The years and between 8-12 used to be the age of innocence.


Last year, my youngest child morphed from child to teenager. Down came the posters of adorable puppies and the drawings from art class; up went the airbrushed face of Matt Damon. Paula Cole CDs and teen fan magazines featuring glowering rock’n’ roll hunks suddenly appeared on her bedside table. As summer approached and younger children skipped past our house on their way to the park, Anna donned her new uniform — a tank top and denim cutoffs — and swigged bottled water while whispering to her friends on the cell phone.

The last rites of her childhood came when she pulled a sheet over her years-in-the-making American Girl doll collection, now dead to the world.

So what’s new in this dogbitesman story? Well, when all this was happening, my daughter was 10 years old and in the fourth grade.

Parents who remember their own teenybopper infatuations with David Cassidy or Donny Osmond might be inclined to shrug and say, “That’s how it’s always been.” But this is something altogether different. Having already sprinted through early childhood, today’s “tweens” (the marketers’ term of choice for 8- to 12-yearolds, like Anna) are also catapulting over the stage once called preadolescence. As tween styles, attitudes, and, alas, behavior increasingly mimic those of teenagers, childhood as we once defined it is evaporating before our eyes.

Indeed, tweens avoid even the suggestion that they are children, instead cultivating an image of knowing maturity. According to marketing surveys of children’s attitudes, by the time kids are 12, they routinely use the adjectives flirtatious, sexy, trendy, and cool to describe themselves. Furthermore, notes Bruce Friend, senior vice-president of Nickelodeon/MTV networks’ international research and planning, by age 11, many children in Nickelodeon’s research groups say they do not want to be called children at all.

“The biggest trend we’ve seen recently is teen-like preteen behavior,” says Friend. “The 12 to 14yearolds of yesterday are the 10 to 12yearolds of today.” This is a lesson the nation’s toy makers have taken to heart. Thirty years ago, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America, they targeted their products to children from infancy to 14 years; today, they do not expect to sell toys to anyone over the age of 10.

The signs of this precocity are everywhere, as clothing stores such as the Wet Seal chain sprout up in malls across America and catalog companies such as Delia’s market cool black mini-dresses to tween girls. Cosmetics companies have introduced tween lines, complete with hair mascara in “edgy” neon colors and body lotions with names like Vanilla Vibe and Follow Me Boy. Sixth-grade teachers complain that the 11yearold girls in their classes often come to school in full makeup, with streaked hair, platform shoes, and mid-riff-revealing shirts.

And this tween fashion scene is by no means limited to girls. A steadily growing number of boys have traded in their baseball cards for hair mousse and baggy jeans. Starter jackets emblazoned with the logo of a favorite sports team and costing as much as $200 are all but obligatory in many fourth and fifth grades; in others, $40 Abercrombie & Fitch Tshirts are the newest status symbol. Barbara Canham, a mother of two from Denver, was shocked when her 8yearold son began affecting a street style, wearing baggy pants, turning his baseball cap backward, using hip-hop lingo, and disappearing into his bedroom for hours to listen to ‘N Sync CDs.

The slick pseudo-sophistication of tween movies is another index of the erosion of childhood. Tweens snub youthful fare (Anna rejects any film rated G or PG because “that means it’s for babies”) and flock to such teen sex comedies as Can’t Hardly Wait (PG13). Scream, the R-rated horror film about a serial killer who stalks young women, is a favorite on the tweens slumber party circuit — although, as Beth Schrooten, of Katy, Texas, discovered after her 10yearold daughter saw it at a friend’s house, the film’s graphic sadism may bring out a child’s true age. “She wanted to watch because other kids said it was cool,” says Schrooten. “But then she couldn’t sleep the next night.” This past summer’s mega hit Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (PG13) had 9 and 10yearolds around the country quoting smirky double entendres.

Cultural conspiracy

If the tween phenomenon were merely a matter of fashions and fads, it might not be cause for much alarm. But there is disturbing evidence that tweens are shedding not only the goodygoody image of childhood but its substance as well. Eating disorders, depression, acts of malice and violence, and suicide (which has doubled for the 10 to 14year age group since 1980) are all growing among early adolescents and preadolescents. Tellingly, many of the copycat threats that followed in the wake of the Littleton, Colorado, massacre occurred not in high schools but in middle schools.

Sexual activity is also on the rise. Between 1988 and 1995, the proportion of girls who reported having sex before 15 rose from 11 percent to 19 percent. (For boys, the number remained stable, at 21 percent.) This statistic means that approximately one in five middle-school kids is sexually active — and it doesn’t even include the much-talked-about predilection among middle-schoolers for oral sex.

To some extent, this desire to adopt the customs of the next age group up is nothing new. Young kids have always emulated their teenage babysitters and highschool sports stars. But what’s different about today is that the entire society seems to be a coconspirator. In the past, our culture revered childhood, and grownups collectively endeavored to preserve it as a time of innocence. Today, it seems as if everyone is saying, “Go ahead race through childhood. And the faster the better.”

Left to their own devices

The most obvious culprit, of course, is the media. Thanks to round-the-clock television programming, videos, movies, video and computer games, and the Internet, children are exposed to ever more adult material at ever younger ages. Even “family TV shows” feature countless examples of tart-tongued, world-weary youngsters who are in fact much too smart to be kids (and who are invariably smarter than the dimwitted adults around them) — from Rugrats’ 3yearold Angelica to The Simpsons’ 10yearold Bart.

But we parents also play a big role in our children’s diminishing childhoods — mainly by not playing a big enough role in their lives. A fact usually overlooked in the furor over child care is that, regardless of the solution arrived at, younger kids have continuous adult attention, whether in the form of sitters, teachers, or daycare workers. But at around age 8 or 9, as they exhibit growing competence, kids are often left alone for several hours a day. “This is exactly the age when more kids are left to their own devices,” agrees Ron Taffel, Ph.D., a Parents contributing editor and author of Nurturing Good Children Now (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). “Parents who’ve been at home find this a good time to go back to work.” And longtime working parents, after years of juggling schedules and panicking over last-minute sore throats, sigh in relief as they post a list of emergency numbers on the refrigerator and hand over the house keys. As Dr. Taffel puts it, “Practical necessity supports the philosophy that ‘this is good for my child.’”

The problem is that, as many teachers attest, kids are lonely. One New York City middle-school principal told me that she frequently has to shoo kids out of the building when after-school activities end, at 6:00 p.m. “They don’t want to go home,” she says. “There’s no one there.”

What this parental absence means is that peer influence moves in to fill the void. Educators report that cliques are taking firm hold earlier than ever. Unlike ordinary friendships, cliques are often harsh and powerful mechanisms for making kids conform to codes of dress and behavior that have been absorbed from the media. Patricia A. Adler, the author, with Peter Adler, of Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity (Rutgers University Press, 1998), found that by late elementary school, boys’ popularity depends on “macho coolness and toughness.” Girls are popular, says Adler, if they are pretty, “have cool clothes and cool possessions — the fancy car, the big house.” And, adds Adler, popularity increases in direct proportion to a child’s detachment from adults.

To make matters worse, parents are often reluctant to take a stand against these trends. Unsure about what other kids are up to or what is really going on at school, many parents end up accepting their children’s judgment. Others are unwilling to squander what little time they have with their kids on battles about clothing or movies. “When you’re working a lot, there’s less time to form a close relationship, so you do whatever you can to make it work,” says Jennifer Hammerstein, of South Salem, New York. “You worry that your child won’t like you. You give in a lot.” And let’s face it: Stressedout parents often welcome signs that their kids are maturing, even when those signs take the form of PG13 movies and metallic lip gloss.

It’s a vicious circle. Rather than having any single cause, this widespread curtailment of youthful innocence can be attributed to a whole host of them, each reinforcing the other. With less time for family life, 8 to 12yearolds look to their peers for companionship and behavioral cues. The peer group in turn looks to the media. And the media spy a robust new market group that revels in being treated as savvy, independent-from-adults consumers. In the meantime, parents, disinclined to fight either of these forces, watch helplessly as their kids gallop through what, once upon a time, were the prime years of childhood.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Hymowitz, Kay S. “Cheated out of Childhood.” Parents Magazine 74 no. 10 (October 1999).

Copyright Gunner & Jahr USA Publishing. Reprinted from Parents Magazine by permission.

THE AUTHOR

Kay S. Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on education and childhood in America. Hymowitz is the author of Ready or Not: Why Treating our Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours. In Ready or Not, she offers a startling new interpretation of what makes our children tick and where the moral anomie of today’s children comes from. She reveals how our ideas about child-rearing have been transformed in response to the theories of various “experts” — educators, psychologists, lawyers, media executives — who believe that children should be treated as small adults, autonomous actors who know what is best for themselves and who have no need for adult instruction or supervision. She is a principal contributor to Modern Sex: Liberation and Its Discontents, and is the author of Liberation’s Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age, a collection of her City Journal essays.

Copyright © 1999 Parents Magazine


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