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THE SHRINKING CHILDHOOD: Children are in a rush to grow up

Parents find ads make job tougher

BY PEGGY WALSH-SARNECKI
Detroit Free Press,  May 13, 2006

 
How parents can slow kids' pace
Be safe. Watch what your child is doing on the Internet and be aware of chat-room partners.


 

Put your home computer in a public room where you can look over your child's shoulder occasionally. Check out video games for any violent content.


 

Don't encourage precocious sexuality with clothing.


 

Just say no. It's easier to give in to what seems like a small demand when parents are busy or tired. But don't.


 

Instead, psychologist Sylvia Rimm suggests parents consider whether the request is more likely to benefit or harm a child in the long run.


 

Take the time. Turn off the DVD player in the minivan and have a conversation.


 

Have dinner together, even if it's just a few nights a week.


 

Listen to your kids. And make sure they listen to you.


 

Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki

Amy Drean's daughter knows what kind of clothes she likes: tighter fitting things and spaghetti strap tops.

"She'll say, 'Oh, it looks sexy mom,' " said Drean, 43, of West Bloomfield. Never mind that Lucia, a first-grader, has no idea what sexy means.

"I'll say, 'Lucia, you are 7 years old. You're not supposed to be looking sexy,' " her mother said.

So Drean makes sure her daughter wears sweaters over tank tops. Like many parents, she finds herself frequently battling the pervasive influences that make kids want to grow up too soon.

Today, parents buy cell phones and ultra low-rise jeans for their 10-year-olds. Middle-schoolers post profiles of themselves -- sometimes claiming they are older than they are -- on Web sites like MySpace.com. Kids as young as 13 go to dances with dates in limousines.

Fueling those preteen and early teen wishes to act and appear more grown-up is a behavior creep that has some experts and parents worried that kids are growing up too fast for their own good, and they're not emotionally, physically or intellectually prepared to handle the responsibility that comes with it.

"Kids are getting all the trappings of maturity, but there is no evidence their emotional maturity is keeping pace," said native Detroiter Susan Linn, a child psychologist and the author of "Consuming Kids" (Anchor Books, 2005).

Driving that hurry to grow up is what Linn calls the "hostile takeover of childhood" by marketing companies that are pushing kids to act years beyond their age to sell products.

"The amount ... that targets kids just escalated exponentially since the 1980s and 1990s," Linn said. "In 1973, corporations were spending $100 million marketing to kids annually. Now they're spending $15 billion," Linn said.

By using what Linn called aspiration marketing and capitalizing on younger children's desires to be more grown up, advertisers push products at 6-year-olds as if they were 12. Then they market to 12-year-olds as if they were 18.

For example, Hasbro plans to launch a new line of dolls that are replicas of the Pussycat Dolls, a pop group. The images available online show miniature copies of the very sexy all-girl group, complete with garter belts worn outside skirts and plenty of bare midriffs.

The dolls are aimed at children as young as 6.

It's an easy sell when marketers push age-inappropriate goods at younger kids, said Michael Layne, a partner in Marx Layne Public Relations in Farmington Hills.

"What more could a preteen aspire to than to be considered cool among teenagers?" Layne asked.

And as any parent knows -- it can be tough to say no.

Rachael Burnside, a Detroit mother of three children, ages 5, 12 and 14, said she had to finally put her foot down when her sons wanted a video game she deemed too violent.

"I told them that garbage in, garbage out," Burnside said. "I told them that I wasn't going to buy them and I wasn't going to give them the funds, either."

Sylvia Rimm, a child psychologist who interviewed 5,400 middle school students nationwide for her 2005 book, "Growing Up Too Fast" (Rodale Books), said children pushed toward adult behavior can be:

Less willing to listen to adults.

Distracted and spend too much time thinking of age-inappropriate activities such as sex.

Lured by sex or alcohol at an earlier age.

"Parent with foresight and understanding of what affects your child in the long run," Rimm advised.

'The Hurried Child'

David Elkind, a psychologist who identified what he calls the Hurried Child Syndrome 25 years ago, argues that the rush to grow up is even more of a problem today than it used to be.

A 25th anniversary edition of "The Hurried Child" (1981, Da Capo Lifelong Books) is scheduled for release in January.

A quarter of a century ago, Elkind was writing about yuppie parents who hurried their children from soccer practice to piano lessons to art class, ruining the normal pace of development.

Today, he says, different forces are hurrying children: "Technological changes in particular today are leading parents to hurry their child," Elkind said, by exposing children to adult activities such as Internet chat rooms and keeping them from natural child's play.

The hurrying starts early on, and in some cases, the parents are doing the pushing.

There are graduation ceremonies for preschoolers, for instance. Rashieda Keith, a teacher at Farwell Middle School in Detroit, said she paid $30 for a cap, gown, tassel, sash and faux class ring for her 5-year-old son Lamar's graduation from Child Star Development Center in Detroit.

"Now that I think about it, I probably shouldn't have paid," Keith said. "But they present it in a way that you'd feel like your child would feel left out if you didn't."

The hurrying continues as kids get older.

Carla West knows she drifted out to the place where extreme parents tread when she reserved a black Lincoln limousine for her 13-year-old son Derek's big dance next month.

Derek and three of his friends will pile into the limo with their dates and head to a dinner-dance at a banquet hall. Derek's dress shirt will match his date's dress. The price tag: about $500 for the eighth-grader at Hally Magnet Middle School in Detroit.

"These little things help to keep him motivated," said West, who will be a chaperone for the dance and will ride in the limo with the students.

Split on cell phones

Then there's the cell phone issue: While some people argue it's another sign of hurrying childhood along when they spot youngsters chatting away on cell phones, some parents said it simply makes sense to equip their children with phones for safety reasons.

Barb Mattie of Ypsilanti bought her daughter Katie a cell phone when she was in seventh grade to help keep her safe. Katie takes her cell phone to school for use in an emergency, and uses the home phone to chat with friends after classes.

Katie, 14, and now in eighth grade at West Middle School in Ypsilanti Public Schools, said most of her friends have them, too.

"I think middle school kids are too young to have them just to talk and hang out with your friends," Katie said. "But I think it's right if you have one and there is an emergency."

The trend appears to be skewing toward younger. According to a study by the Yankee Group, which provides market-driven analysis for the technology industry, 27% of kids age 8 to 12 have cell phones. The study also indicates the preteen market is expected to double in the next four years.

That could be cause for concern with parents wondering whether their kids can monitor their minutes and are savvy about not talking to strangers.

In 2004, Lauren Wilson-Church, 15, of Oak Park was killed by a man after developing a relationship with him, mostly through cell phone conversations. The two spoke on the phone more than 40 times in the three weeks before he strangled her.

The girl's mother had agreed to her buying the cell phone as a way to keep her safe.

So what should parents do?

Rimm said the answer is for parents to fall back on the tried and true techniques of setting guidelines and limits and then enforcing them.

But even that can be tough. Francene Ambrose-Gunn, the eighth-grade coordinator at Hally Magnet Middle School, argues that it's not the parents pushing kids to grow up faster, but it's the kids who are in a rush.

"I think we're trying to catch up to them," she said. "In a lot of cases, they're already hurried beyond what we would want."


 

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