Hormones on Overdrive

The
tweening of American childhood is not merely a matter of toys and
fashion. As we encourage and allow younger children to look like
adults, they apparently begin to walk the walk. In other words, a host
of disturbing signs suggest that tweens are not only eschewing the
goody-goody image childhood, but its substance as well.

Kate Kelly, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Raising a Teenager,
has been deeply immersed in her local school district in Westchester
County, just outside Manhattan, for the past fifteen years, and she
speaks and writes frequently on teen issues. “These kids are having to
make a lot more difficult decisions than kids ten or twelve years ago,”
she told me. “The details start to pile up and get your attention. Our
school has a ballroom dancing class for the sixth grade, and I remember
how, about twelve years ago, the girls were all in Laura Ashley
dresses, puffed sleeves, ballroom gowns, that sort of thing. Now we’ve
got these short little black dresses on twelve-year-olds. We’ve got
these little girls in this sexy attire.”

Once dressed for the part, kids seem to kick in with behavior to match.
“Drinking is starting at an earlier age,” Kelly confirmed. “Half of
middle-schoolers are now getting drunk—but that also means, of course,
that half are not. An increasing number are having oral sex, so now
we’re looking at the dangers of oral sex.”

Tweens are demonstrating many of the deviant behaviors we usually
associate with the raging hormones of adolescence. While ninth and
tenth grade used to be considered the general starting point for most
risk behaviors, educators and psychologists recognize an unmistakable
downward trajectory. Hard data about tweens and risk behavior is a
little sketchy, partly because for many years most surveys and studies
began with fifteen-year-olds. Until recently, it seemed absurd for
researchers to interview ten-year-olds about their sexual activity and
drug use.

But the data that do exist certainly show that kids who are having sex
are doing so at earlier ages. Between 1988 and 1995, the percentage of
girls saying they had had sex before age fifteen rose from eleven to
nineteen (for boys the percentage held steady at twenty-one). So at
least one in five middle school kids is sexually active, and probably
more, because the KGOY trend has only accelerated in the decade since
’95. The American Association of University Women’s 1999 report, Voices
of a Generation: Teenage Girls on Sex, School, and Self, concluded,
“Pressure to have sex starts early (eleven-year-olds were the only
group not to mention sex) and comes not just from boys, but from girls,
too.”

Dr. Erika Karres is the author of Mean Chicks, Cliques, and Dirty
Tricks. A former high school teacher and professor at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she now writes and researches full time.
“What you see now,” Karres told me in her faint German accent, “is that
these kids get no more than about twenty minutes of teenagehood, and
then they are adults. But what you need is this time from childhood to
adulthood to accept duties that go along with maturing, such as looking
out for other human beings.”

Karres was born at the outset of World War II in Magdeburg, a
medium-sized German city not far from Berlin. The first years of her
life were marked with conflict and human tragedy. She was five years
old when Hitler committed suicide, and she maintains that her early
years shaped her life goals and instilled in her a deep commitment to
work for the good of other people. It’s a quality she’s not seeing so
much in today’s young people. “Those things have been postponed. If you
are going to make mini-adults out of twelve-year-olds, something is
going to give, and it is going to be the inner growth. What is there
left to look forward to, when you let them grow up at twelve? Drugs,
premature sexual experiences? When these teenagers hit twenty years
old, they hit a plateau and realize they haven’t really learned
anything. We have a lot of washed-up twenty-year-olds. Not washed up
permanently, but they are not as mature and responsible as previous
generations of older teens used to be.”

The Girl Scouts of the United States published a report in 2000 called
Girls Speak Out: Teens Before Their Time, which identified three areas
of child development that are not working in sync for girls today.
“Cognitive and physical development have accelerated, while emotional
development often has not,” it stated. “The imbalance has led to stress
and tension in eight- to twelve-year-old girls that were not formerly
present. For example, while girls may know facts about sex and may even
be physically mature, they may not fully understand what it means to be
in an intimate relationship.”

The study also revealed that just as girls are confronted with
difficult teen issues like dating and sex at increasingly early ages,
they are learning that their families are often unwilling or unable to
discuss such issues. Pressure to grow up fast puts great strain on
girls who are not yet ready to cope with teenage feelings. Thanks to
precocious physical development and accelerated cognitive maturity fed
by a relentlessly sexual media—as well as expectations from peers,
family, and their own inquisitiveness—girls look and behave like
teenagers earlier than in previous generations. The dilemma is that
these same girls do not have the emotional maturity, nor do they have
the information, to match their accelerated aspirations and
expectations. That’s when the stress and risk set in.

A passage from the report’s summary frames the central issues nicely:
“Girls feel pressured to behave more like teens than young girls, even
though they don’t quite understand what this means and are not
emotionally ready for this change. This pressure is evidenced by
anxiety about relationships with peers, relationships with boys,
physical maturation, and family relationships. These girls want and
need to speak out. They would be very grateful, they say, if they could
speak about these issues in supportive and understanding environments
that contain adults who will listen and help them get answers to
personal questions. They want accurate, detailed, and appropriate
information, and want to be able to rely on their mothers and other
family members as confidantes because they are still strongly attached
to their families at this age. It is important that family members
acknowledge the phenomenon of developmental compression, while at the
same time not prevent the girls from growing up.”

In generations past, traditional rites of passage—even the traditional
debutante ball—were multigenerational and community-oriented. A young
adult was welcomed to a new level of responsibility and respect, not
just to a higher level of freedom. How unlike contemporary proms, many
of which have become the scenes of such modern initiations into
adulthood as drinking, using drugs, fist fights, drunk driving, and
careless sex.

“Prom night feels like no rules apply,” Raising a Teenager’s Kate Kelly
said. “We’ve had to combat a great deal of heavy drinking, kids
drinking much more than they might on a regular weekend, kids having to
be taken to the hospital. Many proms have gone to a busing system, with
parents required to pick the kids up from the bus, because of these
terrible problems.” In 2001, more than a third of youth under the age
of twenty-one killed in alcohol-related fatalities died during April,
May, and June—prom and graduation season—according to the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The most telling and tragic example of the prom as a symbol of
“immature maturity” was the suburban New Jersey teenager who gave birth
in the bathroom at her June 1997 prom, wrapped the healthy baby boy in
plastic, dumped him in the trash to die, then returned to the dance
floor. Critics eager to explain the crime in sociological terms agreed:
This girl was a member of a generation out of control.

Questions and blame also gravitated naturally toward the girl’s
parents. Indeed, where do the parents fit into this phenomenon? “In
many cases they’re the ones willing to bankroll hotel rooms for prom
night,” Kelly said. “The next trend, then, is the spring vacation trip
for seniors. You’ve got a group of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds
going to another part of the country, or an island, or maybe a
different country altogether, with no parent along, no adult. You just
have to think, someone is really insane.”

Therein, perhaps, lies the heart of the matter. For while our children
are growing older younger, their parents are too often refusing to
embrace adulthood, with all its inherent responsibilities and
obligations of age. Conservative essayist Joseph Epstein recently
published a lengthy opinion piece in The Weekly Standard on this very
topic (facets of which, interestingly, radical liberals and
conservatives are surprised to find themselves agreeing on). In
“Perpetual Adolescence,” Epstein writes about life before the shift
toward youth culture began, which he pinpoints in the decade or so
following the 1951 publication of Catcher in the Rye: “Life in that
different day was felt to observe the human equivalent of the
Aristotelian unities: to have, like a good drama, a beginning, middle,
and end. Each part, it was understood, had its own advantages and
detractions, but the middle—adulthood—was the lengthiest and most
earnest part, where everything serious happened and much was at stake.
To violate the boundaries of any of the three divisions of life was to
go against what was natural and thereby to appear unseemly, to put
one’s world somehow out of joint, to be, let us face it, a touch, and
perhaps more than a touch, grotesque.”

Never before, Epstein asserts, has it been more difficult to act one’s
age. After all, how much of our economy, of the marketing industry, is
based on generating more profit by convincing the young that they can
seem older and the old that they can seem a lot younger?

“Time for the perpetual adolescent is curiously static,” he writes.
“Time doesn’t seem to the perpetual adolescent the excruciatingly
finite matter, the precious commodity, it indubitably is. For the
perpetual adolescent, time is almost endlessly expandable … Time
enough to toss away one’s twenties, maybe even one’s thirties; forty is
soon enough to get serious about life; maybe even fifty, when you think
about it, is the best time really to get going in earnest.”

Seven-year-olds are reaching puberty, twelve-year-olds are having sex,
teenage girls are getting fake breasts, and the whole lot of them are
delving into alcohol and drugs in record numbers. There’s good reason
to believe these outcomes are influenced by the twenty-eight hours a
week American kids spend in front of the tube, and by having their
desire to have more faster met with increasingly soft parental limits.
So whose business is that? Clearly, Americans can’t agree on the rules
of propriety in a culture that defines itself by a fierce attachment to
the right of individuality and freedom of self-expression. That’s the
shouting match that erupts whenever anyone starts pontificating about
what ought to be done about the moral state of our youth. Parents can’t
seem to make any sense out of the roar. Why should our kids?

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