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Childhood's End

Family Times
Childhood's end
Years between toddler to adolescence are shrinking, but parents can change that

By Paula Gray Hunker
Childhood is shrinking.
     Parents and teachers have long suspected and now scientists and sociologists have confirmed that children are caught in a double-bind between an earlier physical onset of puberty and an inescapable bombardment of sexual and violent images.
     The result is a loss of innocence as children are confronted with adult problems in a precociously changing body.
     "Over a very short period of time, there's been a dramatic truncation of childhood," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers.
     "Throughout history, this was always a time when children were free of the burdens and responsibilities of sexuality. Parents and society felt responsible to shelter children and provided close supervision and protective love," says the Amherst, Mass.-based author.
     While acknowledging that the abbreviation of childhood is partially triggered by physical changes, Mrs. Whitehead says two major sociological changes -- the rapid entry of mothers of young children into the workplace and the large number of broken families -- have catapulted elementary-school-aged children out of childhood and into adolescence.
     "Child care was once home-based; now children are placed in institutionalized care while still infants," she says. "Also, many children of single parents are exposed to dating or cohabiting parents. This close view of inappropriate intimacy erodes childhood's innocence."
     Even time itself -- or the lack of it -- has proved to be an enemy of childhood, as children return to empty homes and family dinners fall victim to overscheduling.
     Mrs. Whitehead urges parents to safeguard their children's innocence through an investment of "face-time," saying, "There's no such thing as virtual parenting."

Pushing puberty
     Even the most attentive parent cannot slow his or her child's physical maturity. Parents, educators and physicians have long observed that girls are reaching puberty earlier than ever.
     Dr. Marcia Herman-Gidden, a physician and associate professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, last year confirmed that girls are reaching puberty as young as age 8. In a study of 17,000 girls seen by pediatricians in a 14-month period, she reported that white girls started puberty -- meaning that they developed breast buds and pubic hair -- at an average age of 9 years, 9 months, and black girls at 8 years, 6 months.
     She says the reason for the difference between the races is unclear, although some scientists have speculated that many black hair-care products contain estrogen.
     Though the onset of menarche -- the time of a girl's first period --has remained unchanged at 12.5 since the 1950s, better nutrition and health care saw a precipitous five-year drop in the 100 years previous to that. Dr. Herman-Gidden says boys also are maturing earlier, but to date no scientific study has confirmed that observation.
     "The trigger that starts puberty is not really clear," Dr. Herman-Gidden says.
     "I have a hunch that it's both societal as well as physical changes," she says, speculating that stress from broken homes and the sexual stimulation pervasive in today's media may have a precipitating effect.
     Physical causes are easier to determine, although there is no one culprit. In animal husbandry, it has long been known that weight triggers sexual maturity. A sedentary lifestyle and overabundance of food have made children much heavier than in past generations.
     Cultural influences also play a part. An avid gardener, Dr. Herman-Gidden wonders if a childhood bombarded with violence and sexual stimulation causes the species to "go to seed" earlier, just as stressed plants respond to environmental hazards.
     "In a sense, there's no longer an innocence in childhood," she says. "There's just no time to be a kid anymore."

Deprived childhood
     Marianne Felice, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Adolescence, worries that our society treats children according to their size, rather than their age.
     "This is dangerous," says Dr. Felice, who heads the Pediatric Department at the University of Massachusetts. "Children are flattered when we treat them as if they're older, but emotionally and mentally, they're still children -- even if they're in adult-looking bodies."
     A culture "that sells everything from refrigerators to cars by using sex" just reinforces the ubiquitous, sex-centered mentality that deprives our youths of their childhood, she says.
     Parents also play a part --whether intentionally or inadvertently -- when they encourage children to take on adult responsibility too soon.
     "When parents are exhausted from work, they see their teen as relief from chauffeuring, but that responsibility may not be the best thing for their child," Dr. Felice says.
     Barbara Martin of Severna Park, Md., will be attending son Barret's high school graduation this month, and she is relieved that the nearly 18-year-old has not yet wanted to drive.
     "He didn't feel comfortable with the responsibility of a driver's license, and there was no way that I was going to push him into that. Driving opens up a much wider world, and he wasn't ready to go there," she says.
     Mrs. Martin says her son's best friend is a few years younger than him, and that may have contributed to his extended stay in childhood.
     "He has his entire life to be an adult," she says. "What's the rush?"

Value-based childhood
     Diane Medved, a psychologist who with her husband, media critic Michael, wrote the recently published "Saving Childhood," says parents are the only ones who can protect their children from what she calls "a national assault on innocence."
     "Our children's innocence is under attack from three major directions," she says during a recent interview from her home in Mercer Island, Wash. "They're assaulted through the media, in their schools and from their peers."
     She urges parents to use the same three-pronged approach to protect their young.
     First, she says, "Throw out that television. No other single action will have a more beneficial impact than ending that negative media onslaught," says Mrs. Medved, the mother of three children who range from kindergarten to seventh grade.
     For families that find that approach too draconian, she suggests throwing a tablecloth over the television with a potted plant on top.
     "That way, you at least make television watching a conscious activity. Too often, we just watch television by default and that steals away our family time."
     Second, parents should become active in their children's school. "Every morning, I take my children to school and walk them to the classroom," Mrs. Medved says. While not every parent has this time and not every school will welcome this daily visit, she says most schools are hungry for parent volunteers.
     Finally, parents should open their homes to their children's friends. Mrs. Medved, who co-authored "The American Family" with former Vice President Dan Quayle, says a common denominator among the five profiled successful families was that their homes became community gathering places.
     "I want my children's friends to know that not only are they welcomed by my children, but they're welcomed by me," Mrs. Medved says.

Strength in numbers
     Parents also should know the parents of their children's friends, says Theodora Ooms, former director of the Bethesda, Md.-based Family Impact Seminar and new director of the D.C.-based Couples Resource Center.
     "A parent-to-parent connection can overcome the feeling of isolation that so many parents feel these days," Mrs. Ooms says. "The reality is that it's physically impossible for parents to protect their children from everything, every moment. But if parents with similar values can pool their information and resources, that can relieve their children's peer pressure about dating and their unhealthy concerns about their appearance."
     Mrs. Ooms also suggests that parents interact with their adolescent children to provide an alternative to hanging out at the mall. She says adolescents often complain about such attention, "but in the end, they will feel protected and grateful."
     She concedes that parents are pulled in many directions but says that investing time in their adolescents is actually a practical use of time.
     "We all say that we don't have time, but how much time do we spend worrying about them? We can't prevent our children from growing up. But by building a community, we can work together to slow the process down a bit," she says.

More info:
     Books --
  • "Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children From the National Assault on Innocence," by Michael Medved and Diane Medved, HarperCollins Publishers, 1998. Mr. Medved, movie and cultural critic and radio host, and Mrs. Medved, a clinical psychologist, offer a sobering view of how American culture is perverting and prematurely aging our youth. They also offer some practical tips for parents who want to protect their children's innocence.
  • "You and Your Adolescent: A Parent's Guide for Ages 10-20," by Laurence Steinberg and Ann Levine, HarperCollins Publishers, Revised 1998. Offers parents practical tips to avoiding the pitfalls of the preteen and teen years.
  • "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk," by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Avon Books, 1997. This book gives parents a variety of scripts to help them communicate with their children -- even when the children cannot effectively communicate with their parents.
  • "The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family," by Dana Mack, Simon & Schuster, 1997. A thoughtful analysis of the country's current antifamily stance and the backlash it has caused with home-schooling and other movements. This book includes seven pro-family proposals.
  • "The Divorce Culture," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Vintage Books, 1998. This book provides a historical and cultural view of how the country's attitude on divorce has changed, causing a societal sea change.
  • "The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads," by Sylvia Ann Hewett and Cornel West, Chapters Publications Ltd., 1998. "The War Against Parents" offers practical advice on how parents can organize and fight for family-friendly policies in schools, the workplace and government.
  • "Preparing for Adolescence," by Dr. James Dobson, Tyndale House Publications, 1992. This advice manual by the well-known pediatrician and columnist is divided into easy-to-use topics. It also includes a question-and-answer section.
  • "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Teenager," by Kate Kelly, Macmillan General Reference, 1996. A fun approach to surviving the difficult teen years, the book includes a teen-jargon glossary to help parents translate teen talk.
  • "An Owner's Guide to Parenting Teenagers: A Step-by-Step Solution-focused Approach to Raising Adolescents Without Losing Your Mind," by Pat James Baxter and Cynthia Dawson Naff, Real Life Press, 1997. This topically organized guide helps parents remain calm during these stormy years.

     Organizations --
  • Campaign for Our Children (CFOC), 120 W. Fayette St., Suite 1200, Baltimore, Md. 21201. Phone: 410/576-9015. Web site: This group provides information encouraging parent-child communication and sexual abstinence. Its Web site is also divided into separate areas -- with chat rooms -- for parents and teens.
  • The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2100 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20037. Phone: 202/261-5655. Web site: This nonprofit organization provides information and resources to parents and teens.

     On line --
  • The National Parenting Center ( offers a number of chat rooms as well as on-line pamphlets, in the Adolescence Reading Room, that focus on communication with preteens and teens. It also has extensive links to other parenting sites.

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