Are kids growing up too fast?

Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 14, 2011

The other day on the p.m. commute, I heard a mobile phone ring two rows behind me, then the tired voice of a commuter answering the call.

“I’m on the way home now. Yup,” he monotoned.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

He’d had a long day that began before dawn, and he was carrying a load of work to do once he got home.

On top of it all, according to news reports that afternoon, he needed to get his cholesterol levels checked. And it was nearly time for him to get that vaccine against HPV — the human papillomavirus — too.

No wonder I could hear the fatigue in his voice.

“Ya, I’ll be there soon. Bye, Mom,” the 10-year-old commuter in my after-school carpool said, ending his call.

Is it time for the kids-are-growing-up-too-fast rant? Maybe.

Parents are pushing their kids toward adulthood at ever younger and increasingly crazy ways.

They send 7-year-olds to technique-intense sports camps, hire academic tutors for their kindergartners, sign 4-year-olds up for violin lessons and contract with writing coaches to help compose their kids’ preschool applications.

Scientists are studying why we are seeing alarming numbers of 7-year-old girls and 8-year-old boys hitting puberty (they still don’t know, but some blame chemicals in food and personal products.)

Sixth-grade boys are going online to ask advice on grinding techniques for the middle school dance and, not surprisingly, nearly half of the seventh-graders polled in a recent survey said they’ve been sexually harassed at school.

Tweens carry mobile phones, use wheelie bags to roll their three-hour homework piles to and from school each day, and seriously stress about getting into the right high schools.

Parents help their kids lie about their ages online so they can get their own Facebook accounts.

Technology, academic pressure and a changing global marketplace are helping to kill whatever remained of childhood.

When, exactly, was the last game of stickball played on a dirt lot?

To make matters worse, medical experts say parents need to start thinking about cholesterol levels and sexually-transmitted diseases when we talk about the health of our 10-year-olds.

A person’s first cholesterol check shouldn’t be a week before his 50th high school reunion. Rather, it should happen between the ages of 9 and 11, according to a controversial recommendation by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute that was endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics last week.

Doctors said that even in small kids, dangerous cholesterol rates can be detected and remedies — better diet, more exercise — can begin early.

Add a gym membership and macrobiotic diet to that mobile phone account, Mom! Maybe toss in a dose of Lipitor with the Fred Flintstone vitamin?

That’s one of the big fears of this testing trend, that soon, cholesterol-lowering drugs will be handed out like goodie bags at a suburban birthday party.

This is another thing for the helicopter parents to worry about — and another thing for advocates of free-range childhood to snark about.

It’s a ridiculous cycle, isn’t it? At one point in our history, kids were sent to work in the fields and watched their family members drop like flies around them from horrid diseases. Now we worry that drilling our kids in too much vocab before their karate belt test and after their piano lesson is causing stress.

Where, exactly, do modern parents draw the lines on what speeding up makes sense and what doesn’t?

To see what other parents were making of this, I e-mailed my Movie Moms, the eight women who’d joined me for a chick flick several weeks ago. After the movie, they’d had so many smart things to say about our harried quest to balance our work lives with parenting.

So I went back to them this week to get their take about the ways we seem to be speeding up childhood. Do we really need to be thinking about sexually transmitted diseases and cholesterol levels when we look at our little darlings?

“I just see these vaccinations and tests as all part of evolving life. I must confess I see medical progress as primarily of enormous benefit to our family lives,” said the international lawyer, a mother of two children.

We often talk about the ways our kids are growing up in a fast culture and how we try to deflect the bad TV and video games flying at them like Wonder Woman with those awesome bracelets.

But when we talk about science, this mom doesn’t flinch.

“Maybe it comes with having a special needs child, I trust in advancement, and my own personal discomforts with it are secondary,” she told me.

That makes sense. Keeping children in a bubble isn’t going to always protect them from everything.

“The 16-year-old boy gets his first HPV shot tomorrow, the 12-year-old girl will get it when she’s 13,” said another one of my Movie Moms, a lawyer and policy advocate. “They both know what it’s for. It will not encourage them to have sexual relations earlier than they otherwise would. Growing up too fast? Nah, because I am in charge of how they grow up.”

Sounds like a bumper sticker: Power to the parents!

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