Kids Growing Older Younger
Consider this television scenario:
“Grandma is mad. Her grown daughter, Bex, who got pregnant as a teenager, just blazed back into town and let a big secret slip. Grandma had raised 13-year-old Andi to believe that Bex was her older sister. Well, the truth is a tad more complicated.
“Meanwhile, Andi’s school life is only a little less unsettling. A boy is coming to terms with his sexuality. And Andi has her own budding love life to consider.”
The latest from MTV?
As The New York Times reported,
“Hang on to your mouse ears: Disney Channel – land of safe, sweet sitcoms – is exploring this charged terrain with ‘Andi Mack,’ a comedic drama aimed at children 6 to 14 and their parents.”
Yes, age 6.
In my latest book, Meet Generation Z, I wrote about this new and startling cultural trend, which is the tendency of children to grow older younger. A trend with its own acronym: G.O.Y. As Pamela Paul wrote in another New York Times piece, “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 age 6, 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.”
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. 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.”
The deeper cultural current was first detailed in one of sociologist Neil Postman’s most provocative works, 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. He contended that in our world, we ask children to embrace mature issues and themes, experiences and issues, long before they are ready.
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 children grow 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, 12- and 13-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. Young Adult fiction is as mature in its themes as anything on the adult lists.
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 – and 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.
But when the line between the adult world and the child’s world becomes blurred, or no longer exists, childhood disappears.
And that’s not “growing older younger.”
That’s never being allowed to be young at all.
James Emery White
Brooks Barnes, “Kids Are Getting Older Quicker. And Disney Tries to Adapt,” The New York Times, March 10, 2017, read online.
James Emery White, The Church in an Age of Crisis (Baker).
James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Baker).
Pamela Paul, “The Playground Gets Even Tougher,” The New York Times, October 8, 2010, read online.
Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.