Kids growing up too fast

Children have always been curious about adult roles. When I was young, my sister and I often played a game called “Grown Up.”

We would dress in our mother’s clothes, say the rosary, and use words like “disappointed.”

We poured tea and pretended to be more mature than any other six and seven year-old in the neighborhood.

Children still play grown up today, but without the benefit of pretending.

A few years back, French Vogue featured a ten year-old in sexy photos while Real Madrid signed a seven year-old to its professional soccer team. Here in America, reality programs like Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras feature young children displaying aggression that would embarrass a Wall Street tycoon.

All around us, children are dealing with complex emotions and circumstances that would land most adults in jail.

Mental health counselors see it every day.

Patricia Dunn-Fierstein, a Licensed Social Worker and child therapist from Tampa, has been working with children for over 30 years. In some ways, she believes kids are required to take on more today than in the past.

“I’m seeing a lot of anxiety in the culture about success and that anxiety is trickling down to children,” she said.

She sees this even in her youngest patients. Many modern homes build master bedrooms quite far from where the children sleep. Anxiety starts there, with toddlers having trouble throughout the night.

“Move into the guest room for a few months,” Dunn-Fierstein tells her parents. “We weren’t meant to be miles away from our kids. Other cultures would be aghast.”

The alarmingly high rate of divorce certainly doesn’t help. According to Dunn-Fierstein, overworked parents might not understand or be capable of helping their kids. So she sees a rush within these children to grow up way too soon.

Jean Anton, a Licensed Mental Health counselor working with kids in Florida for over 25 years, has similar concerns. She identified traumatic divorce, as well as negative images in the media and technology, for forcing kids to think about things they might not be ready for emotionally.

“Boundaries between childhood and adulthood are blurred,” she said. “There was a recent news story about nursing dolls for very young girls. Encouraging them to emulate that part of motherhood is different from a child seeing her mom nursing in a natural setting.”

Lots of moms worried that a nursing toy will speed up the maternal instinct in their daughters. Hormone-infected cows are already giving ten year-olds breasts and menstrual cycles; they don’t want European toy companies making it worse.

But one blogger pointed out that a breast milk baby doll isn’t much different from buying toy guns for boys.

The blogger has a point. Maybe we shouldn’t be encouraging adult roles at all.

Here are some suggestions for keeping children young both in mind and spirit.

  • Set loving and rational boundaries.
  • Stop obsessing over school performance and periodic shifts in academic grades. Focus on what children are exposed to emotionally that they can’t yet handle.
  • Seek help for your troubled children while they are still young and habits aren’t quite so ingrained.
  • Find age-appropriate movies and magazines, monitor computer use, and fight the urge to compare. Each child has strengths and weaknesses that should be celebrated and addressed without concern for anyone else. Websites like commonsensemedia.org can help with guidelines and suggestions for books, television shows, movies, music, and video games. Watch television shows or games alone and then decide for yourself what your children can and cannot tolerate.
  • Communicate with caregivers, babysitters, nannies and other family members. Everyone in your life should be aware of these boundaries.

By the time our children reach the end of high school, if we’ve raised them effectively, they’re going to make pretty good decisions. Parents often remark that time flies and before they know it, their kids are gone.

Let’s stop rushing it.