When I was in junior high, one of the heartbreaks my peers and I endured was that there were no school dances. This was not reflective of the plotline in Footloose (although the movie was contemporary to our situation), but rather that the school thought that it was best to save some experiences for high school. "What will you have to look forward to if you get to do everything now?" This rather old-fashioned point of view was not enjoyed by those of us in our pre-teen/early teen years, but I respect it now.
I was prompted to remember this story after reading "'Tweens Are Fast Becoming the New Teens" on the AP wire. The gist of the piece is that typical teen behaviors (need for independence from parents, dating, etc.) are now being seen more and more commonly in 8 - 12 year olds. It's not just behavior that's changing, but also bodies. "Several published studies have found, for instance, that some tweens' bodies are developing faster, with more girls starting menstruation in elementary school — a result doctors often attribute to improved nutrition and, in some cases, obesity. While boys are still being studied, the findings about girls have caused some endocrinologists to lower the limits of early breast development to first or second grade." Are parents really having to buy training bras at the same time they provide training wheels for their daughters' bikes?
I recommend a look at the whole article, if you can spare a few minutes. It brought up a variety of questions for me. "Childhood" is really a 20th century and western cultural concept. Could it be that some of the behavioral maturity we're seeing is just something that was there all along? Right or wrong, children used to be viewed as mini-adults and expected to be as such. We may not be sending our kids out to the fields or off to work in the sweatshops, but we are sending them to school and continuing to push the envelope in terms of what we expect kids to know and be able to do. We now have tutoring for toddlers and learning benchmarks for early childhood (starting at birth).
The article does make some good points about the role of parents in all of this. Just because your nine-year old is nagging you for a cell phone doesn't mean you have to give it to her. Parents can monitor and guide selections for tv, music, and video games. However, even the most vigilant parent isn't likely to completely prevent their young children from learning about sexy, violent, or "in" things from their peers. I especially liked the point about clothing. What kind of parent buys their 12-year old a pair of shorts with "Hottie" printed across the seat? My guess is that most consumers out there will blame manufacturers for these, but if there wasn't a demand for it, they wouldn't make and sell it. How many parents out there had children because they would be the ultimate accessory item...and are treating them as such?
I get the feeling that this road to early physical and behavioral maturation is a runaway train. We're not likely to stop it at this point. One thing that is not in the article that I wonder about is the cognitive development in children---and if there have been any changes there. My guess is that the pre-frontal lobe of the brain (responsible for more complex decision-making and abstract thinking) is not maturing at an earlier point in time. In other words, kids might look and act more like adults at a younger age, but they can't think like adults. What impact will that have on them in the long run?