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Growing Pains
Kids need to act their age—and it starts with the parents.

Are today’s children growing up too fast? You’ve likely come across the topic in some form or another. For me, it was in an article where the writer posed the question: Is 10 the new 15? And as the mother of an 8-year-old boy, I had every reason to read on.

A lot has changed in the last 15 years. Kids as young as 9 have cell phones, iPods, IM accounts and personal DVD players. Board games are out; Nintendo Wii and Skype are in. Everywhere moms, dads, teachers, coaches and psychologists are talking about the excess exposure, freedom and money available to today’s kids. ’Tweens have become a powerful audience for marketers the world over, their list of wants becoming increasingly sophisticated and pricey as their techno-savviness has granted them access to things that, not so long ago, were reserved for mature audiences.

The proof is everywhere: Kids are being fast-tracked into adolescence and adulthood well before they’re emotionally and physically prepared. And as parents try to rein in their offspring on so many fronts, their decision-making can get a little out of whack.

“This is a real phenomenon,” says Mary Eno, a psychologist with the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College. “Parents are trying to catch up with kids on the technology front and on kids’ increasingly intricate social webs. Childhood, though, is a recent invention; 150 years ago, adolescence was the time to take on responsibilities. Today, everything is more ‘me’ than ‘us,’ and kids are geared toward themselves, not their families.”

And yet, being overextended in the ‘me’ department has also forced children to become more responsible and master time management at an early age—skills that have further fostered this rush to grow up quickly. “We’re creating the perfect storm,” says psychologist Carol Gantman of Bala Child and Family Associates. “The world is evolving at a faster pace, kids are being beelined for success at earlier ages, and parents are not setting boundaries because they’re trying to be pleasing. They’re not as thoughtful about the messages they’re sending.”

The pressures that were once only experienced in high school are now a factor in middle school. Combine that with a thinning and/or convoluted value system, and the need to hunker down and create a solid support base at home is more crucial than ever. “Kids have always wanted to grow up quickly,” says West Chester psychologist Bonnie Socket. “Now they are, but it means something different. Parents today are dealing with a whole new set of issues and don’t have the same types of control they used to.”

Socket points out that too many parents believe their children are entitled to technology, and that kids fall under its spell at the expense of all other relationships. “Parents are afraid to take control, and this is risky,” she says. “Anytime a child isn’t communicating with parents, the concern is whom they’re getting information from. There are so many ways to access information that kids have isolated themselves to the point where they’re trying to resolve issues on their own.”

And they’re grappling with topics, dilemmas and issues they’re not cognitively mature enough to process—perhaps seeking advice from the wrong places. The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, which houses the executive function. It’s responsible for self-regulation, telling us when to begin to do something (initiation) and when to stop (inhibition).

“If a kid is getting something from an older sibling without having it sorted out by an adult, their perceptions may be inaccurate,” says Gantman. “This normalizing of behaviors and subject matter can promote behaviors that kids might be weighing out at an earlier age. But really, they’re not ready to make those sort of rational decisions.”

Gantman encourages parents to talk to their kids about all kinds of things, “not just the big stuff like 9-11 or the Virginia Tech massacre.”

It’s the parents’ job, she adds, “to make sure their children are properly informed about sex, drugs, puberty, sexually transmitted diseases, drinking, violence, peer pressure and other tough issues. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start educating. The world moves fast and preys on the naive.”

On a similar note, parents must be attentive to their kids’ needs and available for conversation. Younger children are often more willing to talk than teens. But parents can stay in tune by watching, listening and taking interest in the things that their kids love. “Pay attention to the words in the songs they’re listening to,” says Gantman. “Then ask them what they think it means and how they feel about it.”

Because our culture reinforces such a kinetic pace, parents can feel pressured to make sure their kids keep up. In the process, they might allow younger children to be exposed to things they’re not emotionally ready for—in fact, promoting the aforementioned all-too-rapid transition into young adulthood.

“Most parents are as stressed as their kids, and are looking forward to the day the kids can take over some of the responsibilities,” says Gantman. “They misread the cues from their children, who are seeking independence. They think, ‘I don’t need to be home with my kids because they can be alone; they’re old enough.’ But they’re really not ready. It seems OK—until a friend shows up with pot or your kid and her friends decide to raid the liquor cabinet.”

When doling out responsibility, parents should look for a balance. No one is going to deny that a majority of today’s teens could help out more around the house. But just because Mom and Dad are working full-time jobs doesn’t mean they should have to prepare their own dinner and do their homework without any supervision.

“It’s when kids and parents are constantly pulled outside the home that dangers happen,” Eno says. “We can’t freak out, but we can work on holding the family together and staying connected by calming down, micromanaging less, hanging out. We can’t stop the technology boom, but we can push it back.” And parents can do more. “Teens are wired to seek out novel stimuli in preparation for adulthood, and we all know they’re willing to take more risks, says Maria Toglia, a psychologist for the Marple Newtown School District. “Parents need to be their teenagers’ frontal lobes, as most kids aren’t going to ask for this kind of help.”

All of which is hard work, admits Jeffrey Bryer of West Chester Psychiatric Associates. “The ultimate goal is to help kids grow into self-sustaining adults who have good reasoning skills and sound judgment,” he says. “I like to think of adolescence as a supervised internship, where there is room for mistakes and do-overs. Kids need the room to develop their skills. And the only way they can do this is if parents step back. The challenge today is that kids are feeling older and more capable than they really are at earlier ages.”

Bryer mentions the quandary often experienced by younger kids who see older siblings getting cell phones and laptops. “It’s hard for them to understand varying privileges,” he says. “But making age a criteria helps parents buy time and hold the line.”

Ultimately, it’s hardly surprising that kids find home less interesting as they get older. “But as much as they might be feeling like they should be out there, they shouldn’t,” says Eno. “You have to withstand your kids’ frustration. Making kids happy all the time limits our ability to make them strong.”
 

Who’s Life Is It Anyway?
There’s a fine line between growing up too fast and preparing for the demands of adulthood. As a parent, ask yourself if you really want you or your child to shoulder those demands, and be sure to ponder the consequences. Set priorities and avoid hovering and/or force-feeding your kids dreams that may not be their own. “Sure, we want our kids to have a great education, but having it all at age 14 isn’t necessarily going to mean having it all at age 20, 30 or beyond,” says local psychologist Maria Toglia.

’Tweens: An Easy Sell
It’s fairly common knowledge that young people ages 8-26 are the top target audience for marketers and retailers thanks to their impressive purchasing power and influence over what parents buy. New terms like “age compression” and “kids getting older younger” (or KGOY) have infiltrated the marketplace. They’ve even assigned a set of defining traits to this lucrative audience type. Apparently, today’s kids are, among other things, “driven by imitation,” “environmentally aware” and “want more of everything.” Sound familiar?

6 Ways to Stay in Touch With Your Kids’ World
1 Read young people’s magazines and books to discover the issues and concerns of their age group.
2 Watch TV programs and movies with your kids to see what they’re learning.
3 Listen to their music. Do the lyrics coincide with the morals you’re teaching?
4 Develop common interests. Try Nintendo or a computer game.
5 Talk to teachers and guidance counselors.
6 Get to know your child’s friends and their parents. This provides a view of others your child’s age.

 

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