‘Tweens‘ becoming the new teens
By MARTHA IRVINE
Associated Press, 11/25/06
Zach Plante is close with his parents — he plays baseball with
them and, on weekends, helps with work in the small vineyard
they keep at their northern California home.
"Little comments will come out of his mouth that have a bit of
that teen swagger," says Tom Plante, Zach‘s dad.
In some ways, it‘s simply part of a kid‘s natural journey
toward independence. But child development experts say that
physical and behavioral changes that would have been typical
of teenagers decades ago are now common among "tweens" — kids
ages 8 to 12.
Zach is starting to notice it in his friends, too, especially
the way they treat their parents.
The shift that‘s turning tweens into the new teens is complex
— and worrisome to parents and some professionals who deal
with children. They wonder if kids are equipped to handle the
thorny issues that come with the adolescent world.
She and others who study and treat children say the reasons
it‘s happening are both physical and social.
Along with that, even young children are having to deal with
peer pressure and other societal influences.
And many tweens model what they see, including common plot
lines "where the kids are really running the house, not the
dysfunctional parents," says Plante, who in addition to being
Zach‘s dad is a psychology professor at Santa Clara University
in California‘s Silicon Valley.
Kids look and dress older. They struggle to process the images
of sex, violence and adult humor, even when their parents try
to shield them. And sometimes, he says, parents end up
encouraging the behavior by failing to set limits — in
essence, handing over power to their kids.
Natalie Wickstrom, a 10-year-old in suburban Atlanta, says
girls her age sometimes wear clothes that are "a little
inappropriate." She describes how one friend tied her shirt to
show her stomach and "liked to dance, like in rap videos."
Girls in her class also talk about not only liking but "having
relationships" with boys.
"There‘s no rules, no limitations to what they can do," says
Natalie, who‘s also in fifth grade.
Her mom, Billie Wickstrom, says the teen-like behavior of her
daughter‘s peers, influences her daughter — as does parents‘
willingness to allow it.
"Some parents make it hard on those of us who are trying to
hold their kids back a bit," she says.
So far, she and her husband have resisted letting Natalie get
her ears pierced, something many of her friends have already
done. Now Natalie is lobbying hard for a cell phone and also
wants an iPod.
"Sometimes I just think that maybe, if I got one of these
things, I could talk about what they talk about," Natalie says
of the kids she deems the "popular ones."
It‘s an age-old issue. Kids want to fit in — and younger kids
want to be like older kids.
But as the limits have been pushed, experts say the stakes
also have gotten higher — with parents and tweens having to
deal with very grown-up issues such as pregnancy and sexually
transmitted diseases. Earlier this year, that point hit home
when federal officials recommended a vaccine for HPV — a
common STD that can lead to cervical cancer — for girls as
young as age 9.
"Physically, they‘re adults, but cognitively, they‘re
children," says Alderman, the physician in New York. She‘s
found that cultural influences have affected her own children,
Earlier this year, her 12-year-old son heard the popular pop
song "Promiscuous" and asked her what the word meant.
"I mean, it‘s OK to have that conversation, but when it‘s
constantly playing, it normalizes it," Alderman says.
She observes that parents sometimes gravitate to one of two
ill-advised extremes — they‘re either horrified by such
questions from their kids, or they "revel" in the teen-like
behavior. As an example of the latter reaction, she notes how
some parents think it‘s cute when their daughters wear pants
or shorts with words such as "hottie" on the back.
"Believe me, I‘m a very open-minded person. But it promotes a
certain way of thinking about girls and their back sides,"
Alderman says. "A 12-year-old isn‘t sexy."
With grown-up influences coming from so many different angles
— from peers to the Internet and TV — some parents say the
trend is difficult to combat.
Claire Unterseher, a mother in Chicago, says she only allows
her children — including an 8-year-old son and 7-year-old
daughter — to watch public television.
And yet, already, they‘re coming home from school asking to
download songs she considers more appropriate for teens.
"I think I bought my first Abba single when I was 13 or 14 —
and here my 7-year-old wants me to download Kelly Clarkson all
the time," Unterseher says. "Why are they so interested in all
this adult stuff?"
Part of it, experts say, is marketing — and tweens are
Advertisers have found that, increasingly, children and teens
are influencing the buying decisions in their households —
from cars to computers and family vacations. According to 360
Youth, an umbrella organization for various youth marketing
groups, tweens represent $51 billion worth of annual spending
power on their own from gifts and allowance, and also have a
great deal of say about the additional $170 billion spent
directly on them each year.
Toymakers also have picked up on tweens‘ interest in older
themes and developed toy lines to meet the demand — from dolls
known as Bratz to video games with more violence.
Diane Levin, a professor of human development and early
childhood at Wheelock College in Boston, is among those who‘ve
taken aim at toys deemed too violent or sexual.
"We‘ve crossed a line. We can no longer avoid it — it‘s just
so in our face," says Levin, author of the upcoming book "So
Sexy So Soon: The Sexualization of Childhood."
Earlier this year, she and others from a group known as the
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood successfully
pressured toy maker Hasbro to drop plans for a line of
children‘s toys modeled after the singing group Pussycat
Other parents, including Clyde Otis III, are trying their own
An attorney with a background in music publishing, Otis has
compiled a line of CDs called "Music Talking" that includes
classic oldies he believes are interesting to tweens, but age
appropriate. Artists include Aretha Franklin, Rose Royce and
Blessid Union of Souls.
"I don‘t want to be like a prude. But some of the stuff out
there, it‘s just out of control sometimes," says Otis, a
father of three from Maplewood, N.J.
"Beyonce singing about bouncing her butt all over the place is
a little much — at least for an 8-year-old."
In the end, many parents find it tricky to strike a balance
between setting limits and allowing their kids to be more
Plante, in California, discovered that a few weeks ago when he
and Zach rode bikes to school, as the two of them have done
since the first day of kindergarten.
"You know, dad, you don‘t have to bike to school with me
anymore," Zach said.
Plante was taken aback.
"It was a poignant moment," he says. "There was this notion of
being embarrassed of having parents be too close."
Since then, Zach has been riding by himself — a big step in
his dad‘s mind.
"Of course, it is hard to let go, but we all need to do so in
various ways over time," Plante says, "as long as we do it
thoughtfully and lovingly, I suppose."
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