When Childhood Is Rushed

UNDER a brooding sky, the motor of the single-engine airplane roared as the small craft gathered speed and lifted off the runway. It had been a media event, with news coverage, cameras pointing, and reporters asking admiring questions and gushing with compliments. Who was attracting all this attention? Not the only licensed pilot aboard the plane and not the lone passenger​—an adult male—​but, rather, the passenger’s daughter. She was seven years old.

The little girl was to fly the plane. There was a record of some kind to be broken and a tight schedule to be met. The media would be waiting at the next stop. So despite the gloomy weather, the three climbed aboard, with the child sitting on a cushion so that she could see over the instrument panel and using extenders so that her feet could reach the floor pedals.

The flight was all too brief. Facing a sudden storm, the plane veered, stalled, and crashed, killing all three aboard. The media suddenly trumpeted grief instead of praise. A few reporters and editors wondered whether the media had played a role in the tragedy. Many people began to insist that no child should fly a plane. In the United States, laws were enacted to that effect. But behind the sensationalism and simple solutions lurked deeper issues.

That tragedy made some people think seriously about a trend of our times. Children today are being hurried through childhood,  rushed into taking on adult tasks at a very early age. Granted, the effects are not always so dramatic or so tragic. But they can be profound and long lasting. Let us consider a few of the ways in which childhood can be rushed.

Educated in a Hurry

Parents are understandably eager to see their children succeed. But when that eagerness turns into anxiety, parents may overload their children, pushing them too hard, too soon. The process often starts innocently enough. For instance, it is becoming increasingly common for parents to enroll their young children in after-school activities, ranging from sports to lessons in music or ballet. Often, special tutoring is added.

Of course, it is not wrong to encourage a child’s talents or interests. But is there a danger of excess? Clearly there is when some children seem to have almost as many pressures as harried adults do. Time magazine notes: “Kids who once had childhoods now have curriculums; kids who ought to move with the lunatic energy of youth now move with the high purpose of the worker bee.”

Some parents hope that their young children might launch careers as athletic, musical, or acting prodigies. Before their children are born, parents are already enrolling them in preschool, hoping to improve their prospects of success. In addition, some mothers enroll in “prenatal universities” that offer music education for babies still in the womb. The aim is to stimulate their developing brains.

In some countries children are assessed for reading and math skills before they are six years old. Such practices have raised concerns about emotional damage. What happens, for example, to a child who “fails” kindergarten? David Elkind, author of the book The Hurried Child, notes that schools tend to label children too quickly and too early. They do so, Elkind argues, for management reasons rather than for reasons related to the effective teaching of children.

Is there a price for pressuring children to become, in effect, competent little adults before their time? Elkind is troubled by the way society has embraced the notion of making children competent to carry adult burdens. He says: “It reflects our tendency to accept the increasing and  unrelenting stresses on today’s young people as ‘normal.’” Indeed, notions of what is normal for children seem to be changing rapidly.

In a Hurry to Win

Many parents seem to think it normal, even advisable, to teach their children that winning is everything​—especially in sports. Olympic medals are an incentive for many children today. In order to bask in the glory of a few moments of victory and to secure a good living in adulthood, some children are driven to rush through or even to forgo their childhood.

Consider female gymnasts. They start at a very young age with rigorous routines that put their tiny bodies under enormous stress. They spend years preparing mentally and physically for the Olympic competitions. Of course, only a few will be winners. Will the losers feel that the end results were worth the sacrifice of much of their youth? In the long run, even the winners may have doubts on that score.

Emotionally, these little girls may be rushed through childhood in a relentless drive to become superstar athletes. But physically their natural development may be hindered by such rigorous training. In some, bone growth is hampered. Eating disorders are common. In a number of cases, puberty is delayed​—even for years. However, many girls today face the opposite problem: the early onset of puberty.​—See the box above.

Children With Everything Except a Childhood

If you were to believe the entertainment media, you might think that having the ideal childhood means being indulged with all sorts of luxuries. Some parents work extremely hard to provide every possible material comfort for their children, including a lavish home, unlimited entertainment, and expensive clothes.

Yet, more than a few children raised that way are involved in drinking, drugs, and sullen, rebellious behavior. Why? Many seethe with resentment because they feel neglected. Children need parents who are there to love and care for them. Parents who are too busy to do so may believe that they are working to ensure their children’s happiness​—but they may well be doing the opposite.

 Dr. Judith Paphazy describes “parents who both work, from good socio-economic groups,” and says that often they “indulge their children because they subconsciously realise their pursuit of things comes at the cost of the family.” In her view parents in such cases try to “buy their way out of being parents.”

The children often pay a high price. Although they may have many material luxuries, they lack the most essential ingredients of a good childhood: parental time and love. Without guidance, without discipline and direction, they face very adult questions too soon, with little or no preparation. ‘Should I take drugs? Engage in sex? Get violent when I’m angry?’ They will likely find their own answers, taking them from peers or TV or movie characters. The results often bring childhood to an abrupt, even tragic, end.

Being the Other “Adult”

When a two-parent family suddenly becomes a single-parent family, whether through death, separation, or divorce, children often suffer emotionally. Of course, many single-parent families manage well. But in some, the children are rushed through their childhood.

Understandably, a single parent may suffer from loneliness at times. As a result, though, some allow a child​—often the eldest—​to take on the role of the other “adult” in the family. The parent may, perhaps out of desperation, confide in a young son or daughter, burdening the child with problems that the child is not ready to bear. Emotionally, some single parents become overly dependent on a child.

Other parents abandon their responsibilities altogether, forcing a child to take on the role of the adult in the family. Carmen and her sister, mentioned earlier, left such a situation behind when they took to the streets. Still children themselves, they had been put in the position of parenting their younger siblings. The load was more than they could carry.

Without a doubt, rushing children through childhood is a dangerous practice, one to be avoided if at all possible. But there is good news: Adults can take positive steps to ensure that their offspring enjoy years of childhood happiness. What steps? Let us examine some time-tested answers.

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The Challenge of Early Puberty

Are girls reaching puberty at younger ages today? Among scientists, the question is controversial. Some say that in the middle of the 19th century, the average age for the onset of puberty in girls was 17, whereas it is under 13 today. According to a 1997 study of 17,000 girls, about 15 percent of white girls and 50 percent of African-American girls in the United States show early signs of puberty at the age of eight! However, some doctors dispute these findings and caution parents against simply accepting extremely early development as “normal.”

In any case, this situation presents a challenge both to parents and to children. Time magazine comments: “Even more troubling than the physical changes is the potential psychological effect of premature sexual development on children who should be reading fairy tales, not fending off wolves. . . . Childhood is short enough as it is.” The article raises this troubling question: “If young girls’ bodies push them into adulthood before their hearts and minds are ready, what will be forever lost?”

Often, what is lost is innocence​—through sexual exploitation. One mother states bluntly: “Girls who look more mature for their age are like honey [to a bee]. They attract older boys.” The price of being pressured into engaging in sexual activity at an early age is high. A young girl can lose her self-respect, clean conscience, and even physical and emotional health.

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Excessive scheduling may cause problems

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Pushing children to be supercompetitive can drain the fun out of sports and games

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Material possessions are no substitute for good parenting