Is Your Child Growing Up Too Fast?

by Jeanette Gardner Littleton

Coming of Age

In cultures around the world, rites of passage help usher adolescents into adulthood. These rituals, which can be either elaborate or simple, mark a critical moment in young people’s lives when they begin to take on adult roles and responsibilities. In Latin America, a quinceanera celebrates a daughter’s 15th birthday. The party includes all her friends and relatives and begins with a waltz between the young woman and her father.

In Japan, the seijin shiki is an annual ceremony for all young adults who will turn 20 within the current school year. Ladies dress in traditional kimonos and men in black business suits for the ceremony, which includes speeches by public officials and the giving of gifts.  

Some cultural observers suggest that the lack of coming-of-age rituals in the various other countries including the United States has led to extended adolescence among young adults. With no clues from their culture on when and how to be an adult, they continue many of their adolescent habits far into adulthood.

Before she was a teenager, Carol had a mobile phone. She also had her own bedroom complete with cable TV and a computer with high-speed Internet access. By the time she was a young teen, she made regular salon visits and had an artificial tan that made her look much older than she was.

By the time Carol was 14, a new car sat in the driveway, just waiting for her to get a driving permit. By 15, Carol pretty much had it all and was bored.

A few months later, Carol launched a parental assault by asking her parents for permission to get married. “After all,” she reasoned, “we’re practically married in every sense.” And to compound their shock, she was expelled from school for drug possession.

“I don’t understand how this could happen,” her mum, Dawn, said. “We raised her with a strong moral background. And she’s not some underprivileged children. I went back to work to make sure she had all the advantages.”

We want our children to have good things in life. But lavishing them with too many good things is like letting children gorge on candy—in the long run, it hurts their health, hinders their appetite for wholesome things and leads to a hunger for risky, harmful ones.

Just as we limit sweets in our children’s diets, we also need to set healthy limits in other areas. We can do this by creating appropriate stages and boundaries. 

Why wait?

Creating appropriate stages means putting age limitations on behaviours that rush our children out of childhood—such as wearing makeup, enjoying Internet use, having a mobile phone and getting a job. By delaying these activities until an appropriate age, we use them as rites of passage that mark a healthy progress toward adulthood.

As we set up stages and boundaries, we give our children something to look forward to. We help them see that maturity is a process, not something that automatically happens when they turn 18.

This approach also teaches our children that it’s OK to wait for something. Our society says, “Have everything you want now! Don’t wait. Go for it!” But seeking instant gratification often leads to long-term problems, such as massive debt, destroyed relationships and wounded emotions.

Questions to consider

There are no set rules for determining the ages when children should be allowed to have or do certain things. Each family and each child is different. But as you think about stages for your children, ask yourself these questions:

1. What is the reason for letting my child have or do this? For instance, 8-year-old Jenny has a mobile phone, which she uses to call her mum at work while she stands at the bus stop alone every morning. For Jenny and her mum, the phone is a matter of security. On the other hand, Lindsey started asking for a mobile phone in junior high. But since Lindsey just wanted a phone to impress her peers, her mum decided that Lindsey could have one when she was old enough to get a job and earn the money to pay for it. Sometimes we have to evaluate whether an item is a frivolous accessory or something that’s important to a child’s self-image. A mum may balk at letting a daughter get a bra before she has the figure to fit it, but parents sometimes need to realise that when children see their classmates developing physically, they don’t want to be the only one in school who’s “still a baby.”

2. Is my child ready for this responsibility? If my son isn’t mature enough to avoid using a mobile phone during class, then I’m doing him a disservice by giving him one. Sometimes we even put our children at risk by letting them have privileges too early. One mum was horrified to learn that her daughter was giving out personal information to men on the Internet.

3. Am I ready for this responsibility? Parenting is tough enough without giving yourself extra work. When we let our children enter a new stage, we have the added job of helping them handle the new privilege responsibly. Letting a child have a phone in his room, for instance, may mean monitoring to make sure he’s not chatting with friends when he should be doing homework.

4. Will jumping too soon to a particular life stage send unintended messages to my child about self-image or materialism? Will letting a daughter get too many facial treatments too young make her think her appearance is the most important thing in life? Will letting a boy have too many electronic toys too young set him up for always having to buy the latest gadget?

Give them a hand

When your child reaches a new stage, enthusiastically help him or her enter it. When he’s old enough for a mountain bike, help him select one. When he’s old enough to shave, pick out gel and razors together and show him how to do it. When your son is ready for a job, help him research the market. Use life stages not only as signposts of growing up but also as opportunities to start something new with your child.

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