Children dressing up like adults; watching movies with sex scenes; and having the responsibility of feeding and caring for their younger siblings.
Is this happening in your own family? Are your children being forced to grow up too fast?
Child developmentalist Ruth Liew asks, “Why do they have to look like little mini adults?”
She explains that she used to dress her own children in the most comfortable clothes that they could run in and mess up because that's what childhood is all about – having fun and exploring.
Liew attributes children growing up too fast to parents being caught up in the rat race and wanting to be ahead. According to her, it's not just happening in the cities.
Times have changed
Children today are influenced by what they see in the media, by the technology they are exposed to, and what they see in the environment around them.
“I don't think we can ever reverse that. I think what we need to do is know the alternatives. People in some countries are going back to the basics where they delay academic learning. They're not rushing the kids to get through things.
“I guess we are all caught up in the rat race because we want to be more developed. But, we need to know when to relax,” she adds.
While we may think it quite harmless, psychologists say there are effects and repercussions involved.
Stage of development
Psychologist and family marriage therapist Ivy Tan says that according to renowned psychologist Erik Erikson there are eight stages of development for humans, from infancy right up to death. Each stage has its own challenges to be overcome.
Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development:
Stage: Infancy (birth to 18 months)
Basic conflict: Trust vs. Mistrust
Important events: Feeding
Outcome: Children develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide reliabilty, care, and affection. A lack of this will lead to mistrust.
Stage: Early childhood (2 to 3 years)
Basic conflict: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
Important events: Toilet training
Outcome: Children need to develop a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence. Success leads to feelings of autonomy, failure results in feelings of shame and doubt.
Stage: Preschool (3 to 5 years)
Basic conflict: Initiative vs. Guilt
Important events: Exploration
Outcome: Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose. Children who try to exert too much power experience disapproval, resulting in a sense of guilt.
Stage: School age (6 to 11 years)
Basic conflict: Industry vs. Inferiority
Important events: School
Outcome: Children need to cope with new social and academic demands. Success leads to a sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.
Stage: Adolescence (12 to 18 years)
Basic conflict: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Important events: Social relationships
Outcome: Teens need to develop a sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to an ability to stay true to yourself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self.
“Expecting, or imposing, too much too soon, can affect a child’s psychological, emotional and social development – leading the child to become unable to cope healthily with difficulties, stresses and challenges presented upon them. It is beyond their intuitive skills. This causes unnecessary distress to the child,” she says, adding that this is already happening in our society.
As a result, more parents are seeking counselling for their children to manage their child’s so-called “problem behaviours”.
For example, the ages of three to six is when the child learns through play. During this period, children learn about co-operation, sharing and other skills.
If children are placed under stress too early in life, they may not be ready physically, socially or psychologically to handle it.
Compared to a child who has had a “normal” childhood with the corresponding development at each stage, a child who is always expected to be “matured”, may be unable to cope healthily in this stage.
Why the rush?
According to Tan, a child who grows up too fast might feel inferior, doubting the future, feeling incompetent and even shame for not being successful.
She explains that children are pressured to know so much more today than ever before. For example, children are expected to know how to use YouTube. Parents have been known to boast of their child's ability to navigate the Internet, including sites like YouTube. “What is society trying to imply here? The young child is smart because he/she is a YouTube expert, when he/she could become the Lego expert instead?
“There are adverse effects to exposing a child to the Internet at a young age. The Internet and videogames play a huge role in the emotional, psychological and social development of a child. Ultimately, what they learn is to let go of more personal connections with people.
“Teenagers are becoming more disconnected from their families and isolated emotionally as they connect with the Internet and play games. Unsupervised responsibility causes stress on young children. Intellectually, the child may be able to play the game, however, socially and emotionally, the child may not be able to understand that it is not applicable in the real world. This is also true for selecting games that are always age-appropriate for children to play, such as PS3 and Xbox games,” says Tan.
She recommends parents not rush a child's growing up process.
Childhood provides children the time they need to mature and learn critical lessons. Without a long enough childhood, children do not learn many important relationship and life skills.
“Children who are hurried out of childhood would miss out on a lot of the simple pleasures of growing up, of innocent fun and happy experiences that they should be able to look back on when they are adults,” adds Tan.
What can parents do to prevent kids from growing up too fast or even to slow it down?
Liew says that children's dressing is the easiest to deal with.
“Just give them something that's comfortable and suitable for this weather. And, let them accessorise on their own,” she says.
Tan advises parents to balance the need for “achieving independence” in childhood with recognition that all children need to be nurtured according to their stage of development.
* Healthy family bonds
Children are still easily influenced by peers, celebrities and social media, therefore, a strong and loving family who is in no hurry for the child to grow up is a far healthier source of influence to prevent kids from growing up too fast.
“Kids with very good family relationships worry less about appearance and popularity issues, including being pretty enough, experiencing pressure to have nice clothes, popularity with girls, being too fat, or not being tall enough,” says Tan.
Children given access to the Internet and videogames should be supervised. And, parents should know when to set limits and when to just say “No”.
* Talk and listen
Liew believes that parents should talk to their kids, including about relationships and sex. She says kids learn about these things from reading books, watching movies and from talking to their friends. According to her, young children seek out relationships when there is no strong relationship at home. The parent is not there to listen or doesn't have a strong bond with the child.
Kids need occasional hugs growing up but they also want to be listened to and talked to as an adult.
“Often, parents don't listen to their kids. You have to really actively listen. When you listen, you're not judgmental,” says Liew.
Tan agrees, advising parents to listen to their children and their friends. Children should also know that they are loved unconditionally, and not just because of their achievements.
With regards to safety, Liew says parents still need to educate children about how to protect themselves (age-appropriate information, of course). In this case parents can't protect them from knowing that there are criminals in the world that they need to be wary of.
“These are things that are part and parcel of survival in the city. If you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone, then it's a different set of rules. But, if you're living in the city, you have educate them and teach them about safety. It's not about making them grow up too fast. It's about empowering them to take care of themselves. We give them the skills to help them take care of themselves,” she adds.
* Big no-no's
However, some of the big no-no's are children worrying about money, selling their toys and cards to make money and even marriage.
“They shouldn't be wheeling and dealing. They should ask their parents if they want to buy anything or sell anything.
“The child lying for the parent – that is another case of asking kids to grow up too fast.
“Another thing is getting kids married. If you want children to have a childhood, they shouldn't get married.
“They shouldn't be thinking of marriage, making money or even what to do as an adult. Children shouldn't have to worry about things that the parents are worrying about and they shouldn't have to take care of their family and take on the role of the parent,” explains Liew.
What are some of the warning signs that parents should look out for with regards to children growing up too fast?
- Stress-related health problems such as anxiety, hyperactivity, eating and sleeping disorders, and headaches and stomach problems.
- Look out for signs that what was fun is now hard work for the child. Extra-curricular is healthy but too much can create distress for a young child. Hence, parents should not overschedule.
- Pay attention to the subtle changes in their children. For example, behavioural changes which used to be typical of teens are now seen in kids aged eight to 12. Some of them are going on dates and talking on their own mobile phones. They listen to sexually charged pop music, play mature-rated video games, spend time gossiping on Facebook, request to wear makeup and clothing that is beyond their years.
- Look out for symptoms of school burnout. Children who feel overloaded with coursework and demands of school will try to find a way to relief their stress. Younger children may act out while older ones play truant. Common consequences of mismanaged stress can be depression, self-harm and eating disorders. Children will self-punish because they are convinced they are the only ones disappointing and failing.
Liew believes it all comes down to how the parents and family see the children and treat them as well as the expectations.
“Children will always be children. They can be children anywhere in the world. Kids in other parts of the world have nothing and they're still kids. Sometimes we do too much to make kids kids, to the extent that they are no longer kids. They have too much to do. You think you're giving your children a great childhood because you want to give them all the things you couldn't have and now can afford. But, that's not a childhood, either.
“What is childhood? Is it about messing up and playing with things that aren't necessarily educational, being themselves and talking gibberish? Let our kids be kids while they can. They will grow up all too fast, anyway,” she concludes.
Questions to ponder
- Do your children want to wear clothing that is designed for much older children?
- Are the books your children read age-appropriate?
- Are your children involved in so many extra-curricular activities they have no down time to just explore or goof-off?
- Are your children losing that wonderful sense of wonder about the world or do they know it all?
- Do you monitor what music your children listen to, computer games they play, Internet sites they visit - are they age-appropriate?
- Are your children taking on the responsibilities of an adult or parent?
- Are your children wheeling and dealing, or worrying about making money?
- Are your children your confidant?