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Growing up faster than ever before

We see the words ‘kids are having to grow up faster than ever before’ all the time in magazines, books and on TV. They especially refer to girls in saying this. Apparently, it’s the case that children are forced out of their precious childhood years too early. They should be free to enjoy themselves more before they begin to take on more adult concerns.

But what does ‘growing up quickly’ even mean? And moreover, is the expectation that children need to ‘be young’ for a certain amount of time even justified? It’s time to question what the media has been telling us.

When people say that ‘children are growing up too quickly’, they refer to the fact that children, apparently increasingly, have what they term to be ‘adult concerns’. What these may be will vary depending on what the article is about. It may have to do with children being sexualised (yes, that crop top is destroying the childhood of your little girl), having to deal with problems such as divorce or mental illness, and being dealt too much responsibility, having to do too many after school activities and too much study and not being given time to play. Apparently the growing up process is faster than ever before.

Except that it isn’t. It used to be that as soon as a child was old enough to be pulled out of school, they were put in to full time work and had to make some kind of financial contribution to the family. This happened in fact to my grandfather who had to leave school at age 14 to help on his parents’ farm all day. In fact, this continues to happen in many parts of the world, even at younger ages. For some people in the world, education is simply not possible after a certain level because families need whatever income the children can bring in. Never mind excess after school violin lessons or being forced to stay inside to study, many of the world’s children are responsible for the survival of their family, starting from the time they practically hit puberty.

But by and large, I would also argue that ‘childhood’, as we might imagine it, is a myth. Childhood is not about playing on the playground all day and chasing friends and having fun. Anyone who believes this is the case never had a childhood. Childhood is about learning, it’s about getting hurt sometimes by bullies or by thoughtless people, it’s about experimenting with clothes and make-up, it’s about being left out of things and being told that you can’t know something because you’re ‘too young’. It’s about waiting for the adults to finish their boring conversations so you can go home. It’s quite similar to adulthood but for the fact that you don’t earn money and that people deprive you of information.

The idea that when girls play with Bratz dolls and make-up and small bits of clothing that they are being exposed to things of a sexual nature too early on deprives children of their sexuality. While young children aren’t necessarily romantically interested in other people, they are surely interested in themselves and how their body works. Toddlers spend a great deal of their time with one hand down their nappy. Therefore, when you make remarks about how children are overly sexualised, it might be a good idea instead to think about actually giving kids relevant information about sexuality without assuming that they are, at default, completely uninterested in these matters and it’s just that society corrupts them. Being interested in sex, in dolls that look like prostitutes, in questionable clothing isn’t inherently wrong, and nor is it a calling card of adulthood.

An important part of childhood is dealing with the fact that sometimes life isn’t perfect. A child having to deal with divorce does not necessary force him or her to ‘grow up’ but it can be an important step in learning how to cope with what life has to offer, which they can bring to their adult years. It’s simply wrong to think that you have to protect a child from reality for the child to maintain its childhood and it’s a waste of time to try. Can you protect children from death? From bullies? From the news? Not really. What you can do is try to help the child cope with these things so that they build up this thing called resilience. When bad things happen to children, they don’t necessarily ‘grow up’ too quickly, but the potential is there for them to grow up well.

When people say ‘our kids are growing up faster than ever before’ they not only discount the fact that we’ve come a far way from the days of child labour, but they assume the purity and innocence of childhood which in fact does not exist. They deprive children of information and deprive them of their curiosity and participation in their own lives. Moreover, this phrase is said so often that they also become completely boring.

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