Family and Relationships: What Ever Happened to Childhood?

In a Boston school, second-graders take a field trip to the local police station to hear a presentation about the dangers of illegal drugs and to be fingerprinted for “stolen child” identification cards. In an affluent Chicago suburb, elementary school students carry cell phones, pagers, palm pilots and PDAs (personal digital assistants) to keep track of their hectic schedules. Says one parent: “Our kids are just trying to keep their lives ordered.”

Admittedly these may seem like relatively minor upsets dealing with family and relationships in a world scarred by school violence, teen pregnancy, adolescent suicide and widespread substance abuse. Nevertheless, such small examples illustrate the depth and scope of a serious problem in Western society: children and teens are growing up too fast, and the innocence of childhood is becoming a thing of the past. As a result, the foundation for families is also seriously altered, and relationships no longer hold a strong bond.

One person who has been very outspoken about this trend is David Elkind, professor of child study, Senior Resident Scholar at Tufts University, and author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon (1988). “Our society is compressing childhood more and more to where children are not children for very long,” he says. “Children are under tremendous pressure to ‘be mature’ and to ‘grow up’ when they have not had the chance to develop emotional maturity.” “It’s a difficult time for parents,” Elkind says, “because there are so many pressures from society that are unhealthy.” But what changes in our modern world have caused this loss of childhood? Elkind believes it comes down to four major factors.


Tops on the list of Elkind’s concerns is the type of clothing, entertainment and other products being marketed today to young children. As a result, “children in the 8- to 12-year-old age bracket are becoming more like teenagers, leaning more and more toward teen styles, teen attitudes and teen behavior,” he observed.

Many parents lament the fact that it’s becoming very difficult to purchase “little girl” clothes. They say designers have simply shrunk teenage styles to fit younger girls. “It’s just about impossible to find clothes that are appropriate for a little girl these days,” says an Illinois mother of three girls, ages 4, 7 and 9. “But you can sure find a lot of short skirts, string bikinis, platform shoes, and blouses that are cut off at the midriff!”

“There’s a tremendous pressure in our society for children to become ‘sexually precocious’ at a younger and younger age,” says William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Take Back Your Kids (2000). He sees this trend not only in the type of clothing that’s sold to children, but in the sexual images that are portrayed in magazine articles, television and movies, and in music that’s marketed to preteens.

“Children are exposed to cable television and MTV, so they get into the rock videos at very young ages, which is really adult-oriented in terms of sexuality,” Doherty observes. “A lot of sit-coms have teenage characters in them who are sexually active. Many of the magazines read by preteen and adolescent girls regularly have articles in them about how to turn guys on or what guys want in bed. And obviously there are a lot of sexually explicit Web sites that children can look at.”

This is quite a contrast from just a generation ago, he adds. “It used to be that kids would have to go out of their way to find these sorts of materials, but now they just need to turn on their television or go to the Internet.”


Another factor is the overscheduling of childhood. There is a much greater emphasis today on sports and academic achievement than in the past. Many parents worry that if they don’t enroll their kids in a lot of extracurricular activities, their children will be missing out or be left behind. Sometimes, though, parents involve their children in so many outside activities that they really have very little time left just to play, have fun and be kids.

“The adult competitive world has invaded childhood,” Doherty says. “Children’s schedules are such that they are living with a lot of stress. Parents are expecting their kids to have responsibilities that adults should have–in this case, to live these schedules, to multitask, to prioritize time, and to be efficient in the use of time.” He notes that teachers often tell him that students are coming to school tired every day. “Children should not have to have so many responsibilities that they’re always exhausted.”

Most parents probably don’t even realize how much pressure they’re putting on their children, Doherty adds. “They see other parents running around all the time, taking their kid from one activity to the next, and so they do it too, because it just seems like the thing to do. But you have to stop and ask yourself what this kind of lifestyle is doing to your kids. Children don’t need all the extra stress, and frankly, neither do adults.”


A third factor that’s taking away from childhood is the 24-7 cable news coverage that many households have access to nowadays. “Children are seeing too much of the negative, often sensationalistic and frightening news events when they’re too young to handle it,” says Elkind. He believes that the 24-hour coverage of the Iraq War, for instance, served only to scare children and put another level of strain on them: “This news can be hard enough on adults to watch, but we can usually handle it. It’s too much, though, for little children.”

For one thing, young children might not understand that the events being reported on the news are hundreds or thousands of miles away, or that they’re isolated occurrences. “If they see too many negative news stories on television, they may start to feel that the violence is all around them in their own town and feel frightened when they really don’t need to be,” says Isabelle Fox, a family counselor in Sherman Oaks, California, and author of Growing Up: Attachment Parenting From Kindergarten Through College (2003). “Children are not going to be able to play and have fun when they are worried or scared,” she says. All this fear and anxiety takes away a child’s ability to be carefree and have a normal childhood.

Of course, even if parents try to shelter their children from particularly graphic or violent news stories, they may hear about them at school. “There are a lot of topics discussed in the evening news on television that I don’t think my children need to know about,” says Carla Houghton of Calgary, Alberta, mother of two children, ages 7 and 9. “If we’re watching the news and they start talking about a child molestation case or some other news story that I think is too intense, I’ll change the channel. But then my kids will go to school the next day and the teachers are talking about these current events and politics in class, or they’re having a special event at school such as ‘AIDS Awareness Day.’ It seems like no information is held back. My kids certainly know a lot more about adult issues than I did when I was their age.”


The fourth factor affecting children in recent years is the growth in the number of “latchkey kids”–children who go home after school to an empty house. A generation ago, almost all children spent their after-school hours under the watchful eye of parents, relatives or neighbors. According to a 2003 report by Child Trends, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., 15 percent of 6- to 12-year-olds in the United States (3.3 million children) are in “self-care,” meaning they either take care of themselves or stay alone with a sibling age 12 or younger on a regular basis–typically after school while the parents are still at work. When the 13- and 14-year-olds who are home alone are added in, that figure nearly doubles to more than six million.

Circumstances force most latchkey kids to act older than they are. “They don’t have the parental supervision and support they need, so they really can’t act like children,” Fox says. For instance, they are often expected to “pick up the slack” by cooking dinner, doing the laundry, and performing other household chores that an older teen or parent would normally do.

Furthermore, young children left home alone can become frightened or anxious. According to Fox, “Latchkey kids are not given the emotional security to play and relax and really unwind. School-aged children, even though they don’t need constant interaction with their parents, do better knowing an adult is there to provide a secure base and a protected environment.”


Okay, kids in our society are growing up faster these days than they did in past generations. But, you might ask, what’s really the big deal if a 10-year-old lives or acts like a 17-year-old?

There are many reasons why children should not be rushed into growing up. First and foremost, childhood provides them 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.

A big part of childhood is being able to spend time playing with peers. This is very important, Elkind says, because “it gives children the opportunity to learn about themselves, to create and to innovate, and to learn how to make independent judgments. They also learn mutual respect and how to work with others.”

Adds Doherty: “There are developmental ‘tasks’ at different stages of a child’s life. Children have plenty of years ahead of them to face the tasks and developmental challenges of adolescence and adulthood. Childhood is a time to be mastering what they need to master as a child–to learn at school to relate to a peer group, to be part of a family, to learn to be with siblings, and to play. The consumer role, the sexual role, the competitive ‘career pursuit’ role– developmentally those are meant to come later, when a person’s brain and body are developed well enough to handle them. But the child’s brain and body are not developed well enough to handle these pressures.”

Children who are rushed to grow up before they are ready or who have too many “adult level” pressures put on them may develop stress-related health problems such as nervousness, hyperactivity, eating and sleeping disorders, and headaches and stomach problems. Children in self-care are at an increased risk for social and behavioral problems, academic and school adjustment problems, teen pregnancy, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse.

But even if they don’t develop any of these problems, children who are hurried out of childhood still 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.

“Play gives children a sense of enjoyment that they can call upon later in life. When they’re adults and feeling down or stressed, they can remember those happy, carefree times when they were children,” Elkind notes. “These childhood experiences give us a storehouse of memories that we can fall back on when we’re adults. But when we overwork and overpressure our kids, they don’t develop that storehouse of happy memories.”

Children who are rushed around all the time and don’t have enough time to play and rest may not even know how to relax when they become adults. “We’re teaching our children to be harried and rushed all the time and not understand about being still and just enjoying a quiet moment or sitting outside and watching a bird in a tree,” Chastain says. “If children are just success-oriented and the whole focus is to get into a good college and get a great job, then, when they become adults, all they know is work and earning a better income. And that’s all that’s going to be important to them.”

So what’s a parent to do? As a parent, you can help your child grow up at his or her own pace. The key is not to put it on the back burner to be dealt with sometime in the future. If you wait until it is more convenient to start altering the course of your child’s life, it may be too late or it may never happen. If changes need to be made in your family’s or your child’s lifestyle, start implementing these changes today. It’s critical that you do–for your sake and your child’s, for society and culture will beat you to it sooner or later.

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