The pressures causing our children to grow up too fast

A new study claims that childhood is over for many youngsters by the time they are 12. But, Chris Bond asks, is that true?

Are children growing up too fast?
Are children growing up too fast?

BACK in the mid-1980s when I was 12 years old my main interests were football, Star Wars and riding my BMX, much the same as many boys of my age.

My friends and I would play games in the street or go exploring and building camps in the nearby woods. It was a pretty sheltered existence and one, I suspect, that was replicated up and down the country.

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But we were probably a lot less mature than today’s 12-year-olds. Concerns that children in this country are growing up too fast have been around for decades, but a new survey suggests that childhood now ends for many by the time they are 12.

A study carried out by parenting website, Netmums, claims that girls are made to worry about their appearance and boys are pushed into “macho” behaviour at too young an age. More than a thousand parents were questioned with two-thirds saying they felt today’s children were under much more pressure than in the past.

The study suggests that childhood is under threat from outside factors such as the internet, celebrity culture, as well as magazines containing content more suitable for older teenagers, and the easy availability of suggestive images and online porn.

The website’s co-founder Siobhan Freegard blames “a toxic combination of marketing, media and peer pressure”.

She says: “The pace of modern life is so fast that it is even snatching away the precious years of childhood.

“There needs to be a radical rethink in society to revalue childhood and protect it as a precious time – not time to put pressure on children to grow up far too fast.”

Parents voiced concerns that children were being put under pressure to act older than their years, with both boys and girls under pressure to take an interest in sex at too young an age.

It is the latest example of parental concerns about children growing up in what is seen by many as an overly sexualised culture. But are such fears based on reality? Sue Palmer, a child development expert and author, whose books include Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Girls, believes they are.

“Children are biologically programmed to grow up at a certain rate and you can’t accelerate that. They need to be allowed to develop emotionally, socially as well as physically and the way we treat them can inhibit their development,” she says.

“Our attitudes to children are causing problems, particularly the commercial targeting of children from a very early age.”

Peer pressure is seen as one of the main factors making children grow up quickly and this is heavily influenced by the plethora of images on TV and in magazines for the latest fashion accessories and gadgets.

Palmer, a former teacher, says this commercial “bombardment” is having an adverse effect. “Young girls are encouraged to have these terribly pretty shoes, but if they have these shoes they won’t go out and play because they don’t want to get them dirty,” she says.

“Children need opportunities to play and make their own decisions in the way that nature intended. But if we buy them stuff that’s devised by grown ups it often isn’t active and it certainly isn’t social and their development is deadened.” She says there are even “baby apps” now available for toddlers to use. “We have these baby apps but there’s been no research done to see if they’re any good for them.”

Palmer says there is an increasing awareness that what happens during childhood can have a lasting impact and she feels there’s a danger of children being pushed too soon. “The grammar I was teaching children who were eight or nine back in the 70s is now being taught to five and six year-olds.”

She doesn’t even think childhood lasts as long as 12 for many youngsters. “We’re hearing about girls of five or six who are worried about body image,” she says.

“What children need is love and affection and boundaries, as well as social interaction with real people, rather than on a screen. But that doesn’t make any money and the problem with a materialistic society is it isn’t a good one for kids to grow up in.

“Parents want what’s best for their children but there are so many people trying to sell them things and we need to back off and give them their childhood.

“Modern technology is great because it creates shortcuts and allows us to do things faster, but childhood needs time, it can’t be rushed.”