Are kids growing up too fast today?

It’s been pretty well documented that kids today are reaching puberty earlier than in the past, having sex at earlier ages (than has been the case for many years), are exposed to more violence and sexual innuendo (than has been the case for many years) and are generally supposed to be acting “in an adult fashion” (i.e. doing whatever you please, I suppose, in a vaguely sullen and alienated way).

Is this a problem? Are these normal reactions that help a child adjust to a cruel and indifferent world (if you accept the above premise)? Are things worse today if you compare them to the Middle Ages as opposed to the 1950s when life was nastier and brutisher and shorter? Or is the loss of childhood innocence and fantasy a truly tragic consequence of a society which doles out too much information in a sensational and self-serving manner with few controls and safeguards?

Many sources say that life in the '50s was far from the peachy-keen world nostalgia buffs seem to think it was. Someone will be along any minute recommending a book on the subject, and this time, I think I’m ordering it.

If we want to talk about past cultures, well, there was a time when it was normal for someone aged 14 to be ready to start a family of their own.

Evolution has yet to catch up with our ethics, and frankly, that’s not its job!

And why is it that we hear this “kids are growing up too fast” stuff only about the BAD (or supposedly “bad”) THINGS? And not bad as in, aw, little Jimmy just got audited by the IRS! Our little boy is growing up!

Bad as in pregnancy or drugs or alcohol or suicidal thoughts (like there’s an age where something like that should be natural or soemthing) or what they are exposed to on TV and movies.

What about the GOOD? Are kids smarter now? I’d say they are en masse, smarter than ever before. They’re unquestionably more educated. I mean, not that long ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to have never learned how to read at an elementary school level. In this country!

Kids have access to greater technology now than ever before as well. It could very well be argued that kids used to have their own kids at 15, so hell, just hook 'em up to the internet, learn 'em well and get 'em out of the house sooner!

Okay, I am going a bit far. But since there is evidence that kids are growing up too fast, and there is evidence that kids have grown up a hell of a lot faster in the past, maybe - just maybe - kids are growing up at the right rate on the most part?

Maybe?

Kids don’t reach puberty earlier because they choose it. Earlier puberty is a direct result of improved nutrition. Perhaps we parents should start starving our kids, maybe feeding them a diet consisting entirely of potatoes and water, for their own good. To delay puberty, it also helps to work the kids almost to death, starting as soon as they’re able to hoe the beanpatch or work a 14 hour shift at the mill. It also helps to be sure they’re sick a lot; we could bring back scourges of tuberculosis and diptheria, polio (which was pretty popular in the 1950’s- remember?) and cholera. In no time, we could delay the onset of puberty to where it should be, and the world will be a happier place.

Having sex earlier tends to go along with earlier puberty. It’s our culture that’s out of sync with our bodies; girls reach menarche at age 10 or 11, but in order to have any sort of a life, they must wait an artificially long time to marry. There isn’t really a good solution to this.

I think exposing kids (or anyone else, for that matter) to violence is a negative influence, but sex is a natural and healthy function provided those involved do so responsibly. Teaching that responsibility is an important and often-neglected task.

Teenagers aren’t encouraged to act like adults; they’re encouraged to act like teenagers, which is a snotty, sullen, modern invention. Adolescent culture is a limbo which ill-prepares many kids to function in the “real” world. Kids should be treated like human beings and expected to act like them.

Nevertheless, kids are doing okay. The vast majority of kids are good kids, but their image is sullied by a few real psychos. (There have always been child psychos, btw; that’s nothing new.)

The world is not any more “cruel and indifferent” today than it’s ever been; in fact, I think the world has improved immensely even just in the past few decades. Life in the Middle Ages must have been abominable. Life in the 50’s was peachy for some people, as long as you weren’t of the wrong color, religion, gender, or political bent, in which case life was often pretty crappy.

I feel exquisitely fortunate to be alive today, and I have little doubt that my kids will have it even better.

Having just spent many hours writing about this specific topic just last week, I’ll go ahead and post it here for the heck of it.

This essay relates to many of your questions and I am open to comments and criticism of this admittedly rough draft.
Vanishing Childhood

The changing psychological landscape of American youth

Object: Trace the evolution of rural and urban youth conditions from the 1930’s depression / 1940’s wartime eras to modern high stress lifestyles. Correlate this to the intensely truncated childhood that modern youth often undergo.
Transition points: (pivotal historical factors)
End of the family farm: (The dust bowl migration)

The dust bowl migration prompted a huge rearrangement of America’s social fabric. Even as families deserted uncounted homestead farms throughout the Midwest, revolutionary changes in agriculture and farming techniques loomed on the horizon. The mass abandonment of so much cropland helped make possible the era of agribusiness. Despite the increased productivity allowed by the advent of highly mechanized equipment, small farms continued to decline in viability. As large-scale agriculture evolved, the family farm suffered repeated economic assaults that carry on to this day.

However demanding farm chores were for a child, they paled in comparison to the hardships experienced by the dust bowl’s Diaspora. Picking fruit and other rigorous work awaited all able-bodied family members in order to support themselves. This early incorporation into the working world was a precursor to the foreshortened childhood awaiting much of modern youth. Such exigent circumstances diminished any traditional regard for the importance of children having time to grow up.

The economy’s shift towards mass employment by industry heralded an inexorable deterioration of rural community life. The prosperity of American manufacturing’s golden age overshadowed what should have been disturbing indicators of troubles to come. The decreased average working week coupled with increased mobility to mask a vital shift away from the strongly knit farm communities that once predominated. For the first time, adults were able to extend their social circle and activities far beyond the confines of the home. The expanding anonymity of urban life gradually started to dissolve the traditional familial and neighborhood bonds that once existed. Children began to experience greater degrees of unmonitored activity and ever-decreasing adult contact.

Working mothers: (Rosie the Riveter)

Wartime’s mass employment of women to perform traditionally male dominated jobs signaled a sea change in the underpinnings of American society. Women enjoyed a previously unknown degree of empowerment and self-realization in career pursuits. Significant numbers of these women were less than satisfied with returning to domestic life after the war. The advent of personal automotive transportation and other labor saving appliances made home life less demanding and freed up significant portions of personal time. Returning GI’s encountered mixed feelings on all sides as they attempted to balance the benefits of increased income with the newly liberated stance of so many spouses.

The final nail in the coffin of the traditional “housewife” was the advent of modern oral contraception. For the first time in recorded history women were given an unprecedented and long overdue degree of self-determination. Women were able to obtain a greater sense of sexual and professional fulfillment. No longer subject to the perils of teenage pregnancy and early motherhood, more women pursued careers prior to marriage. To better meet those requirements, they attended college in greater numbers. The wartime lessons of doing a man’s job lingered in the minds of those who pursued nontraditional careers in the working world. Issues of unequal compensation and maternity leave began to reshape the entire complexion of business.

Along with this gender realignment of the workplace came a shift in birth and population norms. The ability to more carefully pick a husband delayed matrimony and childbirth. Postponed pregnancy resulted in mothers with a more developed professional and social life. The reduction of women cast solely in the role of housewife contributed to a deficit in time spent with offspring and an increased demand for daycare and pre-school programs. Once again, more children were growing up out from under the mantle of immediate parental supervision or guidance.

Vicarious parental influences:

During the Great Depression and World War two eras, children had fewer options as to work and play. Family farms and businesses were still a large component of the economy and the lack of labor saving devices necessitated the participation of children in their operation. As society became increasingly modernized the childhood chores of rural and urban life subsided. In some cases such tasks were replaced by increased scholastic workload but the importance of higher education had not yet manifested completely. Plentiful industrial blue-collar jobs still offered opportunity for the unschooled and America’s manufacturing sector was yet to be dislocated by the knowledge-based workplace of today.

Parents often sought to fill the increased leisure time of their children with pursuits that they had once wished for but had no chance to enjoy. This vicarious extension of their adult lives was undermined by a frequent inability to participate fully in their children’s activities. As with modern daycare, children were increasingly given role models from outside the home and family instead of parental examples to align with. That this would later result in seeking out affiliation with gangs was not an unforeseeable consequence. A precursor of this was the continuing increase in teenage promiscuity, which should have sounded a clarion call to all parties.

Loss of extended family:

The disintegration of family “enclaves” accelerated in an increasingly mobile society. Work relocation and departure for schooling further fragmented familial groups. A sharp decline in what was once an ever-present safety net of relatives was the outcome. This network not only served as an emotional support group, but as an overarching monitor of untoward behavior. The increasing isolation of individual families from each other eliminated one of the fundamental building blocks of social community in our modern world.

As more married couples pursued dual income careers it also became less feasible to maintain the extended care of elders. Their absence has promoted a lack of intra-familial childcare and oversight. Increasing dependence by parents upon outside daycare promoted the estrangement of children from a sense of family and belonging. Having unrelated and multiple arbiters for what constitutes acceptable behavior propelled children towards establishing their own definitions and constraints. This radically shifted the age at which a child assumes a sense of individuation. Too often, this awareness of separation from family long preceded functional maturity in the child. It is this conflict which promotes both willfulness and a lack of respect for parental authority in many of today’s youth.

As more children find less parental guidance at home they increasingly turn to other sources of approval for their behavior. A common source of this approbation is their immediate peer group. In a tragic case of the blind leading the blind, many youth are left no alternative but to submit to the demands of their cohorts in order to obtain a sense of inclusion. The near-epidemic proportion of disenfranchised youth in America today literally guarantees increased alienation and maladjustment among children during this crucial transition into adulthood.

High divorce rate: (nuclear family)

Erosion of the nuclear family has further reduced the transmission of social and working skills to children. Absentee or weekend parents reduce the time available for both contact and opportunity for this sort of transfer. Too often, children are the hidden casualties as newly divorced parents set about re-establishing their professional or personal lives. Whether it is finding a new job or another mate, the child is frequently shortchanged in the process. The reduction of parent-child interaction has promoted a search by youth for some semblance of familial relationship. This has manifested in a sharp up-tick of sexual promiscuity and gang-related behavior.

Decreased transfer of skills has also tracked a reduced level of maturity in today’s youth. As more households become single-parent or dual income, less time is devoted to the socialization of children. This lack of parental guidance has thrust many youth into the working world bereft of the social abilities required to operate therein. Such a devastating one-two punch leaves many teenagers on the employment sidelines of today’s workplace.
Small family business:

The previous existence of small neighborhood businesses meant that local residents interacted more often, which reinforced a stronger sense of community. The corner store was more likely to hire children from nearby families solely because of prior acquaintance. In the era of the Mega-mall and Hyper-mart this form of opportunity has been lost almost entirely. Length of residence and proximity to large businesses play little part in their current hiring practices.

Employment in a local small business often had an avuncular cast to it as youth learned the ropes of the working world. Such mentoring is largely absent in the sphere of modern employment. Few large-scale employers have an eye for anything but the bottom line and regard workers as interchangeable parts. This loss of quasi-parental oversight by local community members who mentored youth entering the workplace has only served to foreshorten childhood’s duration. Little is left to cushion an introduction to the harsh realities of working life.

Change in hiring practices: (employment of relatives)

The shift from small or medium commerce to large-scale enterprise was accompanied by a significant change in hiring practices. As business and industry became increasingly unionized the opportunity to recommend a child or relative for employment diminished dramatically. This transition decreased the chance of a skill or trade being “handed down” within a family. The disconnection of this once typical parent and child activity tilted the slope of separation even more. No longer did multiple generations work for a single firm and so, another thread of continuity was subtracted from the fabric family life.

As children no longer had any connection to their parents’ daily work there came a similar reduction of the adult’s involvement with the child. The shift from rural to urban lifestyle during the fifties and sixties increased the spare time that youth had. Often left on their own after school hours, the latchkey child was born. The rise of juvenile gangs found its footing therein and began a decades long incubation. Only with the crumbling of the “nuclear” family has the surrogate kinship represented by gangs posed such a threat to modern society.
Impact of modern philosophy:

During the transition from agrarian to industrial economy there has been little evolution in the personal philosophy of many adults. A glaring absence of critical analysis in most decision making renders judgements that are often hollow and void of reasoning. Children are acutely sensitive to arbitrary edicts and will often question them solely due to lack of understanding. It is not so much a contrary or defiant attitude that drives this behavior, more than a wish for definition. Many children are raised in an atmosphere that is morally and ethically inarticulate. By its very nature, such ambiguity propagates disputation in the search for validity. Parents who are unable to reconcile decisions with consistent philosophical tenets often breed disregard for their own stature as role models.

Such philosophical voids inculcate a premature and unhealthy degree of independence in children. Given unsatisfactory answers they will pursue solutions to such questions on their own. Not cognizant of their own intellectual shortcomings, these same children often arrive at equally unsatisfactory conclusions. The answers only seem acceptable because they have been derived with what the child thinks to be a sufficient skill set. If “quality time” spent by parents with children, is not accompanied by substantial dialogue, little will be done to avert these complications.

This philosophical void promotes an untimely leap towards maturity in that children are forced to adopt a decision-making psychological framework long before they are either prepared or fit to do so. In the absence of rational guidance, children will evolve their own methods of deciding what to do. Large amounts of time spent without parental oversight nigh well require that youth make this premature foray into adulthood.

It seems to me that kids today are not growing up too fast at all, rather that they are expected to be young too long. We are at a time when we are told that you need to have a college degree before entering any sort of meaningful life/career path (age 22) and even that is not enough according to some. We are moving towards the masters degree as a requirement for a well paying job. I think the biggest issue here is the lack of self worth and meaning in young people’s lives. If I get a masters degree in the two years after college (assuming I finish it all up in the 4 years alotted to me) I’ll be 25. That’s certainly over 1/4 of my life span as a basically non-productive member of society. A being-in-training. This has certainly been cause for a lot of frustration for me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were for others. How do young people assert their maturity if they are not allowed to participate productively as adults for such a long time? Become more sexually active? Participate in illegal and/or worrisome behavior in order to assert their place in the world of adulthood; to grab the attention of the people who keep telling them that they are too young?