In a Boston school, second-graders take a field trip to the local police station to hear a presentation about the dangers of illegal drugs and to be fingerprinted for “stolen child” identification cards.
In an affluent Chicago suburb, elementary school students carry cell phones, pagers, palm pilots and PDAs (personal digital assistants) to keep track of their hectic schedules. Says one parent: “Our kids are just trying to keep their lives ordered.”
In London, a 12-year-old boy spends a couple of hours roaming around the city with a few of his friends after school. When he comes home, he proudly displays a small silver stud inserted into his newly pierced tongue.
Admittedly these may seem like relatively minor upsets in a world scarred by school violence, teen pregnancy, adolescent suicide and widespread substance abuse. Nevertheless, such small examples illustrate the depth and scope of a serious problem in Western society: children and teens are growing up too fast, and the innocence of childhood is becoming a thing of the past.
One person who has been very outspoken about this trend is David Elkind, professor of child study, Senior Resident Scholar at Tufts University, and author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon (1988). “Our society is compressing childhood more and more to where children are not children for very long,” he says. “Children are under tremendous pressure to ‘be mature’ and to ‘grow up’ when they have not had the chance to develop emotional maturity.” This is a trend not only in the United States but throughout the industrialized world, including Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and Britain.
“It’s a difficult time for parents,” Elkind says, “because there are so many pressures from society that are unhealthy.” But what changes in our modern world have caused this loss of childhood? Elkind believes it comes down to four major factors.
MEDIA HARD SELL
Tops on the list of Elkind’s concerns is the type of clothing, entertainment and other products being marketed today to young children. As a result, “children in the 8- to 12-year-old age bracket are becoming more like teenagers, leaning more and more toward teen styles, teen attitudes and teen behavior,” he observed.
Many parents lament the fact that it’s becoming very difficult to purchase “little girl” clothes. They say designers have simply shrunk teenage styles to fit younger girls. “It’s just about impossible to find clothes that are appropriate for a little girl these days,” says an Illinois mother of three girls, ages 4, 7 and 9. “But you can sure find a lot of short skirts, string bikinis, platform shoes, and blouses that are cut off at the midriff!”
Families on the other side of the world have similar concerns. One Australian parent says his 10-year-old daughter wants to dress in “as little as possible—summer or winter.” Her mother does not dress that way, neither does the family allow any magazines into the house that would...