Growing Up Too Fast

12 07 2011

Our culture tends to throw kids in the deep-end of the pool without teaching them how to swim. Kids are given adult freedoms and privileges, without the responsibilities and training to help them handle it.  Now more than ever, it’s essential to give kids age-appropriate responsibilities, privileges, and freedoms.

Knowing exactly what is and is not age-appropriate is no simple task.  The unpredictable nature of adolescence makes it especially difficult. Every day I am amazed at how 13-year-olds are both incredibly immature and mature.  With any group of seventh graders, there will be some kids with tremendous maturity and some with absolutely none.  Even more amazing is how a single student can seem so mature one moment and so utterly immature the next moment.  It’s a paradox that makes my job as a father, teacher, and coach constantly interesting and challenging.

This is not a new phenomenon, but I think it has grown from a simple stage of development to a societal problem.  The problem is that many children are growing up too fast without developing properly.  Kids are growing up fast but not well; they are not ready to handle the adult things that they are getting in to so young.

David Elkind wrote The Hurried Child in 1981 and has updated it several times since, in response to the fast-changing world of media and technology in which kids live.  He discusses the effects of television on kids in great detail.

Television producers often treat children as grown up…  Owing in part to watching adults shows on TV, even young children seem quite knowledgeable about the major issues of our time – drugs, violence, crime, divorce, single parenting, inflation, and so on. What [children] are able to do with this information is quite another matter. Television exposes children to experiences they could never have without it. But exposure is one thing, and understanding is another. Making experiences more accessible does not make them any less confusing or any less disturbing.

Ironically, this pseudo-sophistication (the effect of television hurrying children) encourages parents and adults to hurry them even more. But children who sound, behave, and look like adults, nonetheless, still feel and think like children (Elkind).

I see this in the classroom every school day.  Students are very familiar and with the issues of unemployment, terrorism, homosexuality, and presidential politics – and yet they know so little.  In other words, they know a little about a lot.  Their knowledge has breadth without depth.  It’s a mile wide and an inch deep. And they certainly don’t know how to process and integrate that information into their lives yet.  But they feel like they know it and that it’s enough to move on.

Now, in 2011, we have the internet on cell phones, YouTube, FaceBook, movies-on-demand, and such to deal with.  Kids are growing up insanely fast online.  And parents are pouring gas on the fire when they get their 9 year old a smartphone or a wireless laptop for Christmas.  They figure that they can afford it, the kids love it, and it’s good for their education.

But even the relatively-tame Disney and Nickelodeon channels (not to mention all the mainstream sitcoms) offer their special blend of grown-up-too-soon.  The word for it precocious, and it describes nearly every lead character on their shows for tweens.  The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as an adjective (of a child) having developed certain abilities or proclivities at an earlier age than usual.  The characters on TV, of course, have adult writers crafting their dialogue to make them far more confident, witty, charming, and funny than their age would otherwise grant.  And the plot lines have them involved in an exciting blend of youthful and adult activities and relationships.

[The media] provides images with whom children identify and seek to emulate…. All the children pop in with exceptional insights. The lesson seems to be ‘Listen to the little children carefully and you will learn great truths.’  To children they provide models of emotional and intellectual precocity, this constituting a kind of hurrying to behave in wise, mature ways. And to adults, this kind of depiction may add to expectations that children be more wise, more sage, and more understanding than we have a right to expect (Elkind).

In other words, media is changing the images and expectations of childhood, both for the children and for adults.  Television has changed the norms.  Kids seem to vault immediately from the carefree innocence of childhood to enjoying all the rights and privileges of adulthood.  And we must remember that 12-14 year olds are so impressionable; they are watching and evaluating everything, even the ads.

Advertisers hurry children into psychologically and nutritionally unhealthy consumerism.”  For every 22 minutes of TV programming, there are 8 minutes of advertisements, so this is no small thing.  And of course, nearly every website, video game, and dvd has plenty of ads for the kids.  The purpose of every ad is to manipulate the viewer to think that they need something, something that the advertisers are selling, and kids are least equipped to deal maturely with these subtle, powerful messages.

One of the most confusing areas of growing up is sexuality, and there are plenty of mixed messages in every corner of pop culture.  “The media in general, films in particular, encourages sexual expression at just the age children should be learning some healthy repression… If we do not repress some of our sexual and aggressive impulses, we would be living in a jungle… Part of growing up is learning to control impulses and to behave morally… The real danger of growing up fast is that children may learn the rules of social license before they learn the rules of social responsibility” (Elkind).  Just read any recent article about how children are sending sexual messages to each other with their cell phones (aka “sexting”).  It’s a real problem because kids have the technology and the information, without the wisdom and self-control to restrain themselves.

American society now tends to hurry kids along, as if it’s a race to the ultra-cool, ultra-free college years.  But important things are lost and not found along the way.  When a young child is empowered with adult rights, freedoms, and products that they cannot yet handle responsibly, then they are set up for failure.  It’s a bit like giving a ten-year old a Porsche.  They may know all about fast cars – they race them in video games and research them online, after all – yet they can’t reach the pedals or see over the steering wheel yet.  We are giving children too much license / freedom, too soon.  Whether it’s choices at the mall or choices related to sexuality, we should ask, “What’s the hurry?”

Elkind concludes, “If we really value human life, we will value each period equally and give each stage of life what is appropriate to that stage.”  Whatever happened to adolescence?  We are launching kids from the elementary school culture to the college campus overnight, without guidance.

Even Jesus, at the age of twelve was not all grown up.  Luke 2:52 says that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”  God the Father was apparently in no hurry to prepare Jesus for all the things of the world.  In fact, Jesus did not minister to the public until he was 30, even though he wanted to, and that was by the Father’s design.  So, I believe we should take note and not just let our kids jump into adulthood so soon.

It’s up to us to be the adults.  We need to slow down and teach kids how to handle each step of adolescence – one thing at a time – not so fast, not so soon.

So let’s have some honest family conversations about some areas of life in which many kids are growing up too fast:

  • ·      letting young girls wear makeup
  • ·      watching PG-13 and R-rated movies
  • ·      owning a cell phone (particularly a smart phone)
  • ·      having internet access
  • ·      having a FaceBook account
  • ·      text messaging
  • ·      wearing less-than-modest clothes
  • ·      going to sleep-overs
  • ·      having a boyriend / girlfriend
  • ·      playing violent video games
  • ·      going to boy /girl parties
  • ·      watching the favorite television shows & movies of older family members

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One response

24 10 2012
herbirthmarks

Great post. I was interested in reading more about kids growing up too fast – I’m an adult and in retrospect, know that I grew up way too early, not so much because of the media (though I’m sure it had a role) but more so because of the responsibilities/”privileges” I was given at such a young age and the expectations my parents had of me.

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