Remember "I am sixteen, going on seventeen" from "The Sound of Music"?
Today, it would have to be "I am six, going on seventeen."
There is a new and startling cultural trend. It is the tendency of children to grow older younger; a trend with its own acronym: G.O.Y.
As Pamela Paul writes in the New York Times, "growing older younger" has six-year-olds going to school guidance counselors complaining that So-and-So won't play with them because they like the Jonas Brothers and the "It girls" like Miley Cyrus. You see, at six, that's way too juvenile. They should be on to something more age-appropriate, like Lady Gaga.
"It's not cool to not have a cellphone anymore or to not wear exactly the right thing," says Erin Munroe, a school guidance counselor in Boston. "The poor girls who have Strawberry Shortcake shirts on, forget it." Tracy Vaillancourt, who specializes in children's mental health at the University of Ottawa, agrees. "Kids mirror the larger culture, from reality TV to materialism."
But aren't parents actively shielding their child from age-inappropriate aspects of culture?
What seems to be happening is that as select peers "grow older younger," the other children feel pressured to match them for the sake of popularity and acceptance. "The girls who are the victims [of bullying or social rejection] tend to be raised by parents who encourage them to be more age appropriate" observes Debbie Rosenman, a teacher in her 31st year at a suburban Detroit school. "The mean girls are 8 but want to be 14, and their parents play along."
Soon, wishing their children to fit in, the initially "age-appropriate" parents start to give in, escalating the downward spiral. But as author Rosalind Wiseman observes, "Parents think it's really cute when their 2- and 3-year-olds are doing ‘Single Ladies' or singing the Alicia Keys/Jay-Z song. But it's not so funny at age 8, when they're singing along to Lady Gaga and demanding a cellphone."
Even that bastion of conservative parenting, NBC's The Today Show, recently asked, "Should your child be watching Glee?"
One of sociologist Neil Postman's many provocative works was titled The Disappearance of Childhood. His thesis was that children are being robbed of their innocence, their naiveté, their ability to even be a child. Postman argued that the very idea of childhood is that there is a time when a young person is sheltered from certain ideas, experiences, practices, expectations and knowledge. They are sheltered from adult secrets, particularly sexual ones. Certain facets of life - its mysteries, contradictions, tragedies, violence - are not considered suitable for children to know. Only as a child grows into adulthood are they revealed in ways that they can assimilate psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.
Postman's analysis, first offered in 1982, was prescient.
Today, twelve and thirteen year-old girls are among the highest paid models in America, presented to us as knowing and sexually enticing adults. Children's literature no longer exists. The language of adults and children - including what they address in life - has become the same. It is virtually uncontested among sociologists that the behavior, language, attitudes and desires - even the physical appearance - of adults and children are becoming indistinguishable. Even the children on TV act like adults. They do not differ significantly in their interests, language, dress or sexuality from the adults on the show; making the same knowing wisecracks and tossing out the same sexual innuendo.
Look no further than the recent sexually suggestive cover of GQ magazine featuring cast members from Glee.
Or the latest music video from Miley Cyrus.
This may be one of the most pressing cultural challenges facing families today. We simply must get involved in the proper development and socialization of our children.
This will probably light up the comment section of the blog, but here it comes: if you can, at least consider homeschooling your child through the critical years of elementary school and middle school. And if you are a pastor or leader, lift up homeschooling as a viable option and create the support networks necessary for those who choose to homeschool to thrive.
I know, homeschooling is often critiqued on the grounds that it doesn't provide normal socialization. That somehow, someway, homeschooling is an extreme position.
But what's normal about a parent dropping off their child at the age of six or seven for a full day with another adult who may or may not share their value system, much less faith, in the context of a mass group of twenty or more other children?
That's proper socialization?
It seems more like "Lord of the Flies."
And these days, in many schools, it often is.
Our current socialization and educational patterns may be the norm for our day, but that does not mean they have been the norm throughout history, much less are actually the best for our children. Further, nothing - and I mean nothing - has ever been produced that would indicate that homeschooling students struggle with proper socialization or academics. If anything, the opposite has been proven.
Full disclosure: I am a father of four, and yes, we homeschooled all four of our children through the eighth grade.
My wife and I have often reflected that one of the great benefits of our choice to homeschool was the preservation of our children's childhood. At ten, they acted the way a ten-year-old was meant to act. They played the way a ten-year-old should play, cared about what a ten-year-old should care about, and were naïve the way a ten-year-old should be naïve.
I know that not every parent/family has the option to homeschool, due to the need for both parents to work. But if you can homeschool, I would argue that the nature of our culture's affect on children would warrant its strongest consideration.
If it isn't feasible, then at the very least become sensitized to this issue and do everything in your power to protect your child against a culture that would have them age beyond their years. Watch who their friends are; guard their hearts and minds; all in view to letting them be a child.
Hear my heart: I have no doubt that conscientious parents who put their kids in public school can guard their child in ways that matter. I have no desire to put guilt or shame on parents who do not homeschool.
But guard your child's childhood, one way or another, you must.
As Postman writes, there is much at stake in this. In having access to the appropriately hidden fruit of adult information, the child is expelled from the garden of childhood.
And that's a second "fall" no child should have to experience.
James Emery White
"The Playground Gets Even Tougher," Pamela Paul, New York Times, October 8, 2010. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/fashion/10Cultural.html?pagewanted=1&ref=homepage&src=me
"Should your kids be watching ‘Glee'?" Today Show, October 21, 2010. Online at http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/vp/39775534#39775534
"Miley's Sexy New Video Has Parent Group Singing the Blues," FoxNews.com. Online at http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2010/10/11/cyrus-criticized-new-video-sexy/?test=faces
Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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