By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Colleen Briner-Schmidt, president of the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers.
The girls wore shiny vinyl boots with fishnet hose and tank tops with spaghetti straps short enough to show off their midriff. They worried that they weren’t pretty enough or popular enough to have boyfriends. They wanted to wear makeup.
This behavior might not be surprising in middle school, says Colleen Briner-Schmidt, but it was shocking to observe in girls who were in her K-1 classroom.
“We were very concerned about what we considered to be inappropriate clothing, as well as their conversations about boyfriends and girlfriends,” says Briner-Schmidt, president of the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers. “It was distracting to have these things happening in my classroom.”
“Seven seems to be the new 17,” says Sandi Pope, Las Virgenes Educators Association (LVEA) president and a fifth-grade teacher at Willow Elementary School. “Starting with incoming kindergartners we’re seeing less and less of the child in childhood. We are seeing a loss of play. We are seeing a loss of imagination. They are using sarcasm on one another and are too young to understand the hurtfulness it can cause. They are using profanity without batting an eye and don’t even realize it’s inappropriate.”
Youngsters are indeed growing up faster as a result of “age compression,” says Diane Levin, a professor at Wheelock College in Boston and author of several books on the topic. “When I taught kindergarten 25 years ago, boys and girls didn’t want to kiss each other; they played together. Now you have girls fighting over boys and boys fighting over girls on the playground, and other girls and boys feeling left out because they aren’t popular. Not every child is having that experience, but it is happening with greater frequency.”
Levin believes the trend can be traced to advertisers targeting youngsters with ads that encourage them to act older than they are. In her book So Sexy So Soon, she explains: “Age compression is a term used by media professionals and marketers to describe how children at ever-younger ages are doing what older children used to do. The media, the toys, the behavior, the clothing once seen as appropriate for teens are now firmly ensconced in the lives of tweens and are rapidly encroaching on and influencing the lives of younger children. In addition, there is a blurring of boundaries between children and adults, as demonstrated by the similarities in clothing marketed to both groups in the fashion industry. Age compression is especially disturbing when it involves sexual behavior. Children become involved in and learn about sexual issues and behavior they do not yet have the intellectual or emotional ability to understand and that can confuse and harm them.”
Unfortunately, says Wheeler, age compression campaigns by advertisers coincided with No Child Left Behind, a law that changed preschool and kindergarten from places of fun, play and socialization into high-pressure academic environments designed to ready children for standardized tests. Instead of having time for play, exploration and learning to become problem solvers, youngsters must take on the tasks once expected from older children — whether they are developmentally ready or not.
As the “adultification of children increases,” youngsters become less kind to one another, observes Levin. “It affects conflict resolution. As girls become more and more focused on their appearance and looking right for boys, they judge others on how they look and what they can buy. More and more their sense of worth and well-being is about having the right objects.”
“Children need to learn how to have giving and caring relationships instead of treating themselves and others as objects,” says Levin.
Ironically, says Pope, some parents think it’s cute to see their child act older. Parents will laugh about their daughters having “boyfriends,” and encourage their children to wear clothing and makeup that will make them attractive to the opposite sex.
“We had a horrific incident where a parent threw a boy-girl party and little kids were playing spin the bottle,” recalls the elementary school teacher. “Parents were watching and thought it was cute. You never heard of things like this before. At the end of fifth grade, parents demanded that we hold a dance. Teachers had taken a stand that there would not be any dances at the end of fifth grade. So the parents went out, rented a recreation center and hired a DJ and held their own boy-girl party for fifth-graders.”
Sherry Miller, a school counselor and LVEA member, says what followed was a proliferation of cliques, hurt feelings and emotional blowups throughout schools, bringing students to her office in tears.
Too often, says Miller, parents are a part of the problem. They are letting their children watch adult-oriented material on television and in movies, letting them access the Internet without supervision, buying inappropriate clothing for them, and having adult conversations in their midst.
“Because of cell phones, children are listening to conversations they shouldn’t be privy to,” says Miller. “And they are listening to these adult conversations in cars and at the dinner table. They are hearing what should be private conversations between adults.”
These days, some educators want to make sure the parents are listening.
Briner-Schmidt says elementary school teachers in the Conejo Unified School District asked parents to be more aware of what is — and isn’t — age appropriate. At back-to-school night some teachers asked parents not to encourage boyfriend-girlfriend relationships between youngsters, explaining that it causes trauma that children are not emotionally ready to handle.
In the Las Virgenes district, staff also shared concerns with parents on back-to-school night. “We split the time talking about academics and talking about how to raise children in a safe manner,” Pope says. “I believe that this is a generation at risk. We have to fight back and become advocates for our students. If that means spending more time developing parent education classes, that’s what we need to do.”
To learn about resisting the unhealthy influence of advertising on children, visit two organizations Diane Levin co-founded: Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment, at www.truceteachers.org; and Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, at www.commercialfreechildhood.org.
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