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Parenting Solutions: Growing Up Too Fast

The Problem

Red Flags

Wears or wants attire or gadgets unsuitable for age, hangs around kids or engages in activities inappropriate for internal timetable, is growing up faster than makes good sense or is safe developmentally.

The Change to Parent For

Your child chooses and engages in activities that are developmentally appropriate and emotionally and cognitively suitable for her internal timetable.

Why Change?

One thing's for sure, it certainly is a different world than the one we grew up in, and our kids' lives are on a fast track. It's almost as though they are living in an X-rated world, bombarded by sexually explicit movies, clothing touting "adult-only" messages, sexually charged pop music, mature-rated video games, and provocative, "way before their years" fashions—when they've barely made it out of the G-rating age group. What's more, not only do our kids idolize those age-advanced lifestyles and products, but corporations, manufacturers, and retail stores are developing and marketing products aimed to encourage them to do so.

The problem is that adopting that fast-forward world could also affect our children's well-being. First, it "decompresses" their childhood, so they miss out on activities, rituals, and games that are essential to normal development; second, it exposes them to serious issues that they can't fully comprehend, let alone handle. That's why child experts, the medical profession, and parents alike are concerned that the relentless exposure to adult-type subject matter is so harmful and wrong. A recent Parents magazine poll found that almost 80 percent of moms and dads worry that their kids are growing up too fast and are exposed to "too much and way too soon."74 In a Newsweek poll, 77 percent of adults feel that those oversexed, underdressed celebrities like Britney, Paris, and Lindsay have too much influence on girls and are pushing them to copy a far too advanced lifestyle way too early.75

Although we parents can't put blinders on our kids or change that outside racy world, we sure can put the brakes on what comes into our kids' lives. Here are solutions to help your child develop at a pace geared more appropriately to her chronological age so she won't grow up too fast and can experience those glorious days of childhood that every kids needs and deserves.

Pay Attention to This!

Monitor Your Child's Media Consumption

Our kids are bombarded with sexual imagery and confusing lessons from TV, movies, music lyrics, and newsstand magazines. In fact, each year our kids are exposed to more than fourteen thousand sexual references, innuendoes, and jokes on television alone.76 Seventy-seven percent of prime-time shows on major broadcast networks include sexual material and provocatively attired actors,77 and 10 percent of TV characters who engage in sexual intercourse are teens.78 Research now proves that those sexualized media images do affect our children's childhoods and are pushing them to grow up too fast, too soon.

* In surveys, over a quarter of adolescents admit that televised sexual content affects their behavior and pushes them to act older and grow up faster.79
* The American Academy of Pediatrics found that repeated exposure to sexual content in television, movies, and music increases the likelihood that kids will become sexually active at earlier ages.80
* The American Psychological Association concluded that proliferation of sexualized images of young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harmful to girls' self-image and their healthy development and increases the likelihood of eating disorders and depression.81

The lesson: know what media your kids are reading, listening to, and watching, and set clear limits.

The Solution

Seven Strategies for Change

1. Stay tuned to what's happening around us. Take a careful look at a few TV programs that your child's peers watch. Catch the latest reality TV show; flip on MTV and notice those grinding dance numbers and provocative outfits. Listen to the latest pop lyrics. Flip through CosmoGirl, Teen Vogue, or Teen People and peruse the mall a little more closely to check out the latest tween fashions. Doing so will help you recognize the pressures today's kids are under and help you decide what limits you want to set for your child. It's unrealistic to say no to everything, so where will you draw the line? Be clear about where you stand so that you can clarify your reasons to your child.

2. Take a crash course in child development. You might have devoured those baby books, but don't overlook learning about your child's current stage of development. Review a few respected sources so you can understand what is age appropriate for your kid. Recommendations include The Preschool Years, by Ellen Galinsky; The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12, by the American Academy of Pediatrics; or, for tweens, The Roller-Coaster Years, by Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese. Ask your health care professional for developmental milestone charts for your child's age. Talk to experts—such as teachers, pediatricians, and yes, even grandparents—who usually understand normal childhood development. Your commitment to slowing the accelerated pace of your kid's childhood will be reinforced by understanding how destructive a fast-forward world is to your child's emotional and social development.

3. Let your kid be a kid. According to a University of Michigan study on how kids ages three to twelve spend their time, over the past twenty years there has been a drop of twelve hours a week of free time overall, with unstructured activities like walking or camping falling by 50 percent—while high-pressure structured sports went up by 50 percent.82 Take a serious look at your child's schedule and scan her list of daily activities. Is there any time left for those cherished childhood traditions like play, make-believe, forts, unscheduled time, and sand castles? Don't buy into that modern-day American parenting myth that "push-push-push" is "better-better-better" for your child. There is no proven scientific support of the consumer-driven nonsense that parents should accelerate their kids' performance (from kicking a soccer ball to reading).83 So what's the rush? Make sure that your child has time just to be a kid.

4. Insist on developmentally appropriate material. Let's face it, the culture is pushing our kids to grow up faster, and they do act older than their actual age. Puberty is starting earlier and kids do look more mature. But "looking and acting" like a grown-up doesn't mean your child is developmentally ready to handle that fast-forward world. Here are actions to take:

* Set your rules and expectations based on your child's actual chronological age.
* Tailor your decisions to what is developmentally appropriate to your child's current emotional, cognitive, and physical stage. (Check child development guides.)
* Lay down certain "rites of passage" or ages your child can go to her first sleepover, use the Internet alone, obtain a cell phone, see a PG movie, shave her legs, wear makeup, or pierce her ears so that she has something to look forward to.
* Utilize the suggested age guidelines for games, toys, sports equipment, and books.
* Use the age rating system for video games, movies, CDs, and television shows. Recognize that panels of credentialed child development experts spend hours reviewing each product before providing posted guidelines.
* Lead your child toward age-appropriate hobbies and interests. Think swimming, horseback riding, theatre, soccer, knitting, band, scouting, 4-H, and church groups that focus on healthy outlets that are developmentally suitable.

5. Forbid the "sexy look." These days, fashions aimed at kids are outright provocative and clearly push the limits of age appropriateness. Makeup. Short skirts. Halter tops. Press-on nails. Lip gloss. Thong underwear. See-through blouses. "Comehither look" attire clearly is selling sexualization and luring our kids into a far too early and unhealthy focus on appearance with an R-rated twist. Pick your battles when it comes to fashion, go ahead and allow choices, and don't worry so much about "style," but hold a clear line when it comes to fashion with a sexualized look. Regardless of the onset of puberty, your nine-year-old is still nine. Set your standards to your children's chronological age, not their physical appearance. (See also Clothes and Appearance, p. 350.)

6. Start those "grown-up talks" earlier. Let's face it: kids nowadays are exposed to more grown-up issues at far younger ages. Studies show that drinking, sexual promiscuity, oral sex, depression, eating disorders, stress, peer pressure, puberty, and even acne are all hitting our kids three to four years earlier than when we were growing up. So don't deny your child's fast-forward culture and wait to discuss those "grown-up" subjects you had planned for the teen years. Even if you're not talking about these tougher issues, believe me your child's friends most likely are. Be the one who provides accurate facts that are laced with your moral beliefs and values. Also make sure that your child's doctor is someone your child feels comfortable speaking to. Beware: puberty is striking kids at younger ages, and your child does needs to feel comfortable speaking to someone—if not you—about menstruation or wet dreams.

7. Stay connected. The closer your relationship with your child, the better able she will be to navigate that sometimes raunchy, racy culture; find alternatives to those sexual messages; and realize it's okay to be a kid. That's because your child will seek your guidance and use you as a filter. And you do make a difference: a 2007 MTV/Associated Press poll found that the majority of young people listed their parents as their heroes.85 Find more time for your child to connect with you, her grandparents, and relatives, who can help keep her centered, preserve some ounce of her childhood, and value her for who she really is and not how popular or sexy she looks. Above all, stay connected! A thirteen-year-old typically spends half the amount of time with her parents that she did when she was ten.86

What To Expect By Stages and Ages

Preschooler Kids at this age are most likely to wear what their parents suggest and choose for them. You will see "sexy" clothing aimed at the preschooler set. Watch out for gender-demeaning slogans, such as "Born to Shop," "Little Princess," and "Professional Drama Queen"; though seemingly harmless, these messages can begin a self-fulfilling prophecy; they can stick, especially as others comment about them. ("You're a little beauty queen, eh?") Attraction to particular clothing labels begins, based on what kids' friends like or what is advertised on their favorite television show. Fashions and accessories worn by kids' favorite Barbie or Bratz dolls also begin to influence attitudes.

School Age Six- and seven-year-olds are still more influenced by parents than are kids in the tween years, so use your influence. Marketers start to push "pre-makeup," such as glitters, lip glosses, manicures, and spa-like kits. The elementary school set is now the fastest-growing market for digital media players; 31 percent of kids ages six to ten have some form of music player.87 Puberty signs may begin in girls as young as seven or eight, including pubic or underarm hair and acne.

Tween Marketers of electronics, fashion, accessories, and makeup (among other things) start intense marketing campaigns aimed at tweens. Tweens feel physically and emotionally awkward at the onset of their puberty.
Late-Breaking News

Puberty Is Hitting Kids Earlier

American Academy of Pediatrics: Over a decade ago, Marcia Herman-Giddens,84 a pediatrician and now professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, noticed that many young girls in grades 1 to 5 were showing pubic hair and breast development. In her words, "It seemed like there were too many too young," and she launched a major national study involving 225 clinicians and over seventeen thousand girls to prove her hypothesis. As she reported in her famous paper, published in Pediatrics, she found that our kids are definitely and absolutely growing up faster.

The average age of the onset of menstruation is four years earlier than currently used norms and 15 percent of seven-years-olds and almost half of eight-year-olds are now developing breasts or pubic hair. Comprehensive data are still not in for boys, but studies show that they are reaching their adult heights at younger ages, suggesting that they too are maturing earlier.

By: Michele Borba, Ed.D. - John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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