In the course of an hour, your kid has crawled onto your lap for a snuggle, rolled her eyes and sighed at the last three things you've said, played dress-up with her dolls, and tried to convince you that it's okay for her to start wearing mascara. Confused? She is too. It may seem like just yesterday that she was taking off the training wheels, losing her first tooth, and learning her ABCs, but in today's warp-speed world she's somehow teetering on the cusp of her 'tween years.
The term 'tween used to mean kids just shy of their actual teens -- that is, 10- to 12-year-olds. But these days, children as young as 7 or 8 are being lured into the 'tween mind-set. Sure, they're still drawn to more age-appropriate American Girl dolls and Zhu Zhu Pets, but they're also getting barraged with suggestions that there are way hipper, cooler, older things to explore -- like cell phones, celebrity-inspired fashions, American Idol, PG-13 movies, and makeup or spa parties.
Stuck somewhere between childhood and adolescence, today's grade-schoolers are finding themselves in the throes of a troubling identity crisis. "Our culture is increasingly putting pressure on children at younger and younger ages to act more like little teenagers," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of Raising Kids With Character. And while the concept of being all grown up may be somewhat appealing to your child, chances are he'd really rather play tag or cavort on the playground, at least for a few more years. Though you may not be able to completely prevent this premature shrinking of childhood, you certainly have the power to put on the brakes and slow it down. Here are some easy ways to better understand -- and guide -- your changing child.
You can monitor some of the media's influence on your child by paying close attention to his tube time. Not just the number of hours he's glued to the set (though that's certainly important), but what he's watching and the messages being conveyed. According to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8- to 10-year-olds spend more than 17 hours a week in front of the TV.
Increasingly, children's programs (and their commercials) target grade-schoolers with messages and products that once would have been considered more appropriate for teens. "Since most 8-year-olds worship teens, many marketers have decided to promote products to them as though they are several years older," says Susan Linn, Ed.D., director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. While many kids don't have wadfuls of cash to spend, pleading with their parents gives them a lot of economic power: Children under 12 influence $500 billion in spending each year. And just because a program is on a kids' network doesn't mean it's appropriate for your child. If you don't like what you're seeing or hearing, turn off the television and discuss your concerns with your kid. You might say: "One thing that bothers me about this show is the way the popular kids were teasing and laughing at that boy. What do you think of that?" Then help him find something better to watch.
Over the last decade -- for reasons that aren't yet entirely clear -- more girls as young as 7 have started to develop breasts and even pubic hair. Boys may develop earlier too, but it's far more common in girls. So while your little girl may still have the mind of a third-grader, she might find herself living in a body that seems more like a junior-high-school kid's, and that can be upsetting to you both. "Help your child understand that these changes are normal and that all kids experience them at some point; she's simply a little ahead of her peers," says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of Talking to Tweens: Getting It Right Before It Gets Rocky With Your 8- to 12-Year-Old.
Regardless of whether your child is headed for puberty early, all kids this age start to become more aware of their body and how they may look in relation to the other kids: Girls may fret about their weight, while boys become more sensitive about their height or wish they were more muscular. Feelings of self-consciousness can influence how your child thinks she should look, dress, and act at this age, so try to shift the focus away from bodily appearances to the nonphysical things that make your child special, suggests Hartley-Brewer. "Praise her great sense of humor, her spelling ability, her kindness, or her artistic skills."
This time in your child's life should be one of creative, physical, and intellectual exploration. It's a time for him to try out all sorts of new things -- from sports to music to arts -- without sacrificing downtime. Unstructured play activities, like building cities out of blocks and playing school with dolls or stuffed animals, are important for his development and help preserve some innocence. Problem is, kids today are being introduced to all sorts of teen techno gadgets like cell phones and video games at younger ages, and once they're hooked, simpler pastimes like racing Matchbox cars or swinging in the backyard lose some of their appeal. So the longer you can hold off on big-kid privileges like these, the better. "Your child probably has classmates who own cell phones, but that doesn't mean that yours needs one. Parents shouldn't be influenced by peer pressure," says Hartley-Brewer. And if you've already decided to give your child one -- for reasons of safety or family communication -- you can still set limits on texting and talk time.
Luckily, most 7- and 8-year-olds still love spending time with their parents, so capitalize on this while you can. Plan fun activities like family game nights (break out the board games, not just the Xbox or other tech gadgets) and spend a few extra minutes each night tucking in your not-so-little -- but still not-so-big! -- kid, so you can discuss any worries or problems he may be feeling. You can prepare for the challenges of the teen years by laying the groundwork for solid communications and reasonable boundaries now.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Parents magazine.
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