Are American Children Really Growing Up Too Fast Today?


Just An Opinion, But - Yes - I Really Think They Are

In a Hub I recently wrote about the childhood obesity problem, I offered the opinion that children today are under too much stress because they're allowed to/encouraged to grow up too quickly. Based on the idea that children's intelligence is often underestimated to the point where they may feel misunderstood/stressed out; and that their emotional maturity is too often overestimated, which leads to a lot of situations that are too stressful for them to deal with (one way or the other); my Hub suggested that one cause of childhood obesity could be the cravings that can come when a person is under too much stress. A fellow Hubber raised the very valid question (or perhaps better described as "other side of the discussion") about the fact that children of past generations, as well as children in cultures other than American/Western culture, have often been forced to grow up pretty quickly for one reason or another.

The point was (essentially) whether it's correct to believe that American kids today grow up too quickly, in view of the fact that the world and history are full of people who have grown up awfully young. (I'll add "and it hasn't made all of them obese as children".) Whether a time-table for growing up (and what constitutes "too quickly") is more a function of the period in which someone lives, a society, or a culture was the focus. The following thoughts and opinions were inspired by that question and issues related to it:

With regard to children of previous generations, I don't think it was "the best thing" that many had to work, that adults were so often really tough on them, and that life was a lot rougher for a lot of children.

On the one hand, maybe it was good that children's ability to take responsibility or deal with the rough stuff in life was not underestimated. Comparing common thinking with today's kids and the general attitudes when I was a kid (I'm a Baby Boomer), there wasn't this business of things like "everyone-gets-a-trophy" and "we-don't-keep-score-in-games" when I was little. At the same time, however, kids were sheltered from the "ugly details" of life in a lot of ways. My parents just kind of instinctively knew how to share the difficult stuff in life without dumping on their kids more details than kids can deal with. Separate from the difficult things in life (like death, illness, money worries, etc.); there was the matter of the birds-and-the-bees, and a lot of people today don't think it was too great that ten-year-olds back then may have known where babies come from but may not have known how they got started in the first place.

Kids of my generation grew up being told, essentially, that sex was for grown-ups; and most of them believed that. Having sex before high school was almost unheard of, and even in high school the only people who "gave in" were usually the relatively few couples who had gone steady since junior high and become so much an established couple they eventually "moved to the next level", if only because the high school years brought more opportunity to have sex.

So, on the one hand, there were expectations for kids of my generation. On the other hand, they weren't babied and sheltered when it came to the difficult things in life.

My WWII generation parents were among all those who gave their children the kind of childhood they, themselves, hadn't had. My mother used to say that she didn't like "how people treated kids" when she was a child, so she (like so many other parents who had gone through The Great Depression and World War II, thought children should "just be kids". People of my generation would eventually start making fun of the "Leave-It-to-Beaver" and "Father-Knows-Best" concept of childhood, parents, and family (and some people of my generation but of less-than-ideal family situations) would make fun of it as well. Still, many people of my generation had awfully-close-to-ideal childhoods and were, as my mother thought kids should be, just kids.

So, my parents, like so many others, bought the new house in the new housing development (although it was a few years past the rush on "cookie-cutter" houses). They were happy that their children were out of the sparse, old-fashioned, schools and able to attend modern, suburban, schools with class sizes of about 250 kids per graduating class.

At the time, there wasn't middle school. There was junior high, and it was made up of grades 7 through 9. There was a dress code (a reasonable one, but one nonetheless), and the school building was generally free of graffiti. In my class there were three boys who were famous for getting into serious trouble (and two of those three seemed to get into a fight with one another every morning before school started). Other than that, most everyone else either didn't get into trouble at all or else only got into relatively minor trouble. Smoking was absolutely prohibited in the school, on the grounds, on the buses, and even on the walk to and from school. Students would be suspended if caught smoking, and in those days most kids really didn't want their parents to know they were smoking; so that was one big deterrent for a lot of kids who otherwise might have smoked more than just trying it occasionally.

Junior-high girls commonly believed they should wait to have sex until they were substantially older, and hearing the line, "Boys are only out for one thing," was as common as hearing, "Make sure you always keep at least one dime with you in case you need to call home for some reason." Although, maybe, boys did often have "only one thing" on their mind, a lot of them felt too young to get "too involved" with girls at the same time (at least for a lot of the boys considered, "nice boys").

There were "street wise" boys who were kind of tough and who were, without a doubt, aiming to find a girl for that "one thing"; and they usually sought out girls believed to be "easy"; but in junior high in those days, street-wise boys nor "easy-seeming" girls were in the majority. Of course, if these kids got together it was a bad combination because neither tended to be emotionally mature - only physically mature and/or street wise. They didn't have the common sense or maturity to realize how young they were, so getting into some kind of trouble was more likely for them. Again, though, they weren't that common (at least in middle-class, suburban, schools) in junior high. There were more of these kids in high-school (but in high-school the youngest kids were at least 15-about-to-be-16, and even a lot of them were still young-thinking enough that they didn't "get into grown-up stuff/trouble" until they were juniors or seniors.

Kids in my generation weren't perfect any more than kids of previous generations have ever been, but the overall picture was that more kids got to be more emotionally mature (and have more sense) before getting too involved with "grown-up" stuff. At the same time, kids were expected to "be responsible" as they grew, because adults tended to be a lot of emphasis on that (and school work) when it came to kids. It was generally thought that being a kid was a time for focusing on learning to be responsible and doing school work. The "grown-up" stuff that was discouraged or forbidden was generally the stuff that had potentially serious, negative, consequences. Sex, smoking, and drinking were considered "grown-up stuff". Drugs weren't even, for the most part, a factor for even secondary-school students (because drugs were just making their way into colleges when I was in high school. It was a few years later (when high-school kids began "mimicking" college kids that drugs started to be appealing to high-school kids).

With abortion not yet being legal, and in a society that saw shame in "unwed pregnancies", many girls, themselves, would make good and certain they didn't have any "accidents" (even if that meant saying "no"). The prospect of an unwanted pregnancy loomed so ominously over the heads and futures of kids who believed they'd "break their parents hearts" if that happened, a lot of kids just made sure it didn't. Sexually transmitted diseases weren't as prevalent a risk as they are today, with "everyone" being "freer". Still, though, it was a risk, just as unwanted pregnancy was.

In the more "innocent" age when kids were kids longer, there were, of course, those boys who would go out drinking (girls weren't known to be "big drinkers" then); and it was probably a rare kid who didn't at least try smoking cigarettes. Drinking young has always posed the higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, and smoking young has been associated with becoming a long-term smoker. Even so, the boys who did drink didn't all become alcoholics. Drinking and driving was, at is now, a serious threat for teens. For all the kids who did "try" smoking, a lot didn't keep smoking. Some, of course, did; so that was one of the "grown-up" things that followed kids into adulthood.

Even with the realities of the risks and consequences some kids did choose for themselves, the overall picture was a population of young people who, in general, remained "younger" longer - and usually long enough for their emotional maturity and common sense to kick in and better prepare them for the grown-up choices they'd face later.

Born in the fifties and reaching adulthood in the seventies, I had the luxury of being in the first and last generation of Americans to have such a "charmed" and innocent childhood. Although neither the world nor society were perfect when I was a kid (any more than either have been perfect through any other time in history), childhood was (at least for those fortunate enough to be born to good, loving, parents) nice. What made it even nicer was that people of my generation commonly got have all that "nice" right through to adulthood. With the luxury and benefits of living through such a nice childhood and teen years, however, came the contrast of seeing my own generation find ways to throw away much of what had been positive about childhood and youth; as seeing what was wrong in society led, in a lot of ways, to a kind of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" phenomenon. Unfortunately, I think I am of the first generation to see so many friends and peers have their lives, futures, and mental health destroyed by drug experimentation that led to serious drug problems in the first years of college. Some may say that drugs aren't necessarily a "grown-up" thing, but in those days 18-year-olds saw the drug experimentation of 22/24-year-olds as a "grown-up" thing. Today, it's middle-school kids who see drug use, drinking, and sex as what "grown-up" high-school people do.

Generations before mine often didn't have the luxury of "just being kids" because many kids had to work (in factories or fields) as even young children; and if they didn't they were often expected to drop out of high school in order to help their families with money. Children of earlier generations saw more death and disease, because immunizations weren't what they are today; and neither was medical care in general. My mother-in-law lived in an orphanage from six years old on (with her siblings) when their parents both died. My father's three-year-old sister died of Diphtheria, and left my then eight-year-old father to see his parents grieve, in their own ways, for years.

People a little younger than my mother was dealt with the fear of living through World War II as children, and the ravages of both that and The Great Depression were part of their childhood. Little girls of generations before mine weren't, for the most part, seen as people for whom education or independence was vital. Women who were my father's age were little girls who could not be certain they'd ever be able to vote. Young boys of earlier generations (or other cultures) have joined, or been sent to, wars when no child or young teen should face such a thing.

The point is that kids of other generations (as with kids in some cultures today) did, in many ways, have adulthood thrust upon them young. Childhood for them was not what it was for people of my generation. I think, though, that wasn't at all the ideal thing for children because even though children can deal with a lot of serious, grown-up, things at surprisingly young ages; it's not necessarily good for people to spend much of the first two decades of their life in stress, harship, and loss. Science now knows that a young person's brain is not fully mature until a person is in his early- to mid- twenties. Physically, even though many look very mature, teens are not finished growing up either. As long as a person's brain and body has yet to finish maturing it's never good for that person to be under too much stress or in too much grief (an extreme form of stress).

Stress is bad for the bodies and minds of even the most well adjusted adults with great coping skills. It can't possibly be any "less bad" for people who aren't yet finished growing up. It does certainly seem that most people of earlier generations survived their early "growing up" and turned out well enough; but, at best, a lot of them talk about what never had as children; or about how life was difficult for them "and they managed OK in spite of it". Whether or not the kind of "growing up young" generations before mine did turned out people who are not OK isn't really the point. The point is that all human beings grow best and thrive when their needs are met and when the circumstances are nurturing, rather than destructive.

I look back on the kind of childhood I had (even though there were some difficult things our family faced), and I think how it let me be young and happy enough long enough to help prepare me for some of the difficult things that would happen later. After thirty years of adult life that has brought, perhaps, a lot more grief and loss than the average person has; I've discovered that after too much loss and grief has come into even an adult life, a person can get to feel as if he has little energy left to deal with yet more. On top of that, a person's sense of sureness in this world can turn to a kind of "back-burner fear" about what may happen next. As an adult, I see the difference between the "me" I was thirty years ago and the "me" I am today, and I find ways to "work with" whatever toll life has taken on me. The thing is, though, that I had the luxury of starting my adulthood with the kind of "emotional energy" and outlook that comes after growing up without too much stress, loss, or grief. I feel as if I had the time to build up some emotional maturity and strength, so that when the grown-up difficulties started to come around I was able to be strong, and have the coping skills, to deal with the first of the "grown-up" things to come into my life. It was on those first "serious things" that I was able to "hone my coping skills" in order to deal with the stuff that would follow.

What I would not want to do, though, is face what I've faced in the last thirty years of my life if I had to begin facing it with the way I am today, after going through a whole lot of stress and loss. I'm a grown up, and a strong one at that. Even so, after enough "grown-up stuff" (loss, stress), even the strongest and most well adjusted of people can run out of emotional steam to some degree. What happens when a person isn't a grown-up before the serious stuff starts to come into his life? What happens when a person comes into adulthood already feeling quite beaten up by life? What happens when a person isn't old enough to turn the hard times into practice for learning coping skills? What happens when, instead, someone was a child when he needed to learn to cope but wasn't mature enough to learn the most effective way to do that; and instead, learned just to toughen up? What happens when a person enters adulthood without ever having the time he needed to just grow and mature?

When young trees are planted they're often supported or sheltered until they grow big enough and strong enough to withstand the wind and weather. While there are never any guarantees, in general, once those trees are strong enough and rooted enough they're very likely to withstand what comes their way for a long, long, time. So many remain standing through hurricanes, blizzards, and ice storms (not all, by any means, but so many).

Whether it's baby trees or seeds that will one day fill a beautiful garden, nurturing, sheltering, giving light and warmth and time is what it takes to see that dream of a beautiful garden come to fruition. Sure, once in a while you can throw some seeds in whatever soil happens to be in your yard; and if you (and the seeds) are lucky you may get a few flowers out of them. You may even find that as the seasons go on the flowers multiply. This isn't, however, how the most beautiful and healthy of gardens are created. While it's true that some parents allow their children to "grow like weeds", most want more for their children than that. Letting children grow up too soon is, at best, like not bothering to support or cover baby trees. At worst, it's like throwing flower seeds out the window and hoping that flowers grow and the weeds don't get them.

My children's father and I often joke about how people (often who clearly have "issues" or attitude problems) will confidently talk about something negative that went on in their childhood and then follow it with, "and I'm OK." Most of the time (unless whatever went on was really minor) these people are obviously not OK, or at least they're obviously not as OK as they otherwise would have been. Childhood for people of my generation wasn't always perfect; but with the benefit of having seen what such a childhood gives to those fortunate enough to have it, those of us who had a long time to "just be a kid" (the way my mother so often said she thought childhood should be) can see what those who haven't have missed (and often continue to miss).

The year or so before I turned 21 was a time when I was suddenly thrust from a carefree childhood and teen years into some "big, serious" stuff. My father died. I was in an accident in which my girlfriend was killed. Another close girlfriend's teen brother died two months after having Leukemia diagnosed. Our "other" friend's two brothers and a pal were in a horrible accident, in which one of her brothers and his pal were killed; while the other was seriously burned. Yes, I was 21 (give or take months) and "an adult" at the time, but I've always felt as if I was robbed of so many years of carefree youth that so many other people get to have. Sure, I got over that particularly unkind year or so of "horror"; but looking back, I've always kind of wished I could have had the kind of early twenties other people usually get to have. Instead, I spent my early twenties getting over the "rude awakening" of becoming an adult. Unlike all those people who say things like, "I went through horrible things, and I'm OK," I tend, more, to say, "I had my youth cut short and I'm pretty much OK."

That's thing thing: I have to be OK. Anyone who has had his childhood or youth cut short has to be OK. There's no going back, so anyone who is at all well adjusted knows he has to find a way to being OK (or at least mostly OK). Heck, I'd even go as far as to say, "I'm damned OK." Still, if I really think about it, I can see things about myself, how I think, and my general approach to life that, while "damned OK" (enough) definitely have some roots in a youth cut short and an adulthood started and lived always with just a little something missing that shouldn't have been missing.

Yes - children are growing up too quickly today. Their minds and bodies are not being given the time to mature before they make decisions about, or deal with, grown-up stuff. Whether it was the more difficult childhoods of generations that came before mine, or the childhoods of children from cultures where the luxury of childhood is either not possible or else not desirable; childhoods that end early or else never exist will always turn out some people who are "mostly OK". They will always, however, turn out people who feel that a little something is missing; or else those for whom so much is missing they'll never gain the insight that will allow them to see all the ways in which they are not whole.

Childhood shouldn't be defined by society, culture, Madison Avenue, or the school systems; because each new baby comes into this world with childhood defined by a schedule built by Nature, regardless of the year in which that baby is born. If young girls today, or young girls in some cultures, are reaching physical maturity prematurely it's because there's something in their life/environment that is going against Nature and "throwing off" their development. People don't talk much about the age at which boys reach physical maturity, but the casual observer may notice that boys who start to change physically early often seem, too, to have one kind of stress (or insecurity, which amounts to stress) or another more than boys who don't.

Some people worry that "preserving childhood" means "babying" or "holding back" children. There's a big difference between "babying" and aiming to prevent a child from having the weight of the world on his shoulders before those shoulders are strong enough to carry such a burden.

More by this Author

Click to Rate This Article