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Growing Up Too Fast*

My parents don't understand one thing about me. I'll paint my fingernails or streak my hair, then my dad gets really mad and yells at me and tells me all my faults. My mom lives in Florida now, but she's worse than my dad. I zone them both out. 7th-grade boy

My parents won't listen to me. My dad thinks I should be treated differently because I'm a kid. I want the same treatment as my parents.
5th-grade boy

You already know that kids are growing up too fast, but my new book actually documents kids’ words and experiences. Yes, you will be astounded because they’re growing up even faster than you supposed. By third grade about 15% of children are already feeling pressure about being popular with the opposite sex, and the same percentage were worried that their parents didn’t understand them. Kids in middle school today are typically exposed to the high-risk behaviors like alcohol, drugs and promiscuous sex that their parents remember from high school and college.

What’s Wrong With Fast?

We all like girls. We learn about everything from the moveis and try out the sex we see.
5th-grade boy

My best friend has a boyfriend. He's really stupid. He's 15 and in seventh grade. They're going out, but it's kind of gross. They'll kiss each other in the hallway, and I'm like, "Ahh! Stop! Go away!"
7th-grade girl

Adolescent-like behavior that begins early leads to more opposition both at home and in the classroom. It steals middle childhood, the time when children have typically been absorbed in learning basic academic and social skills. Early sexual absorption by children is a powerful distracter.

Furthermore, there is no research that suggests any positive outcome stemming from earlier sexual involvement, so you should be very concerned about the pace of sexual behavior in your children. Parents can make a great difference in kids’ choices and behaviors by stating their opinions and setting clear limits.

Gender Issues

My survey found that girls are moving forward compared to past generations. More girls than boys described themselves as smart, creative, talented, confident, independent, and leaders—all of these characteristics that would have been considered masculine in the past. In addition, girls were nearly equal to boys in descriptions of themselves for positive traits like being funny, gifted, cool, and courageous. These, too, would have favored boys in previous times but not everything has changed.

When the kids were asked to describe their grades in school, 78% of the girls described their grades as above-average compared to only 70% of the boys. Despite the higher percentage of girls who considered their grades to be above-average, fewer girls than boys thought of themselves as intelligent (64% of the girls and 70% of the boys).
Boys may be in for a surprise if they don’t change some expectations for the future. For this generation, most girls (90%) are expecting to simultaneously manage careers and families while 26% of the boys said they expected to marry girls who would stay home with their children. This is undoubtedly the greatest change apparent in middle schoolers since the generation of their parents and grandparents. 

Boys may be in real trouble when it comes to effort. They do need parent, and especially Dad’s encouragement. For boys, there was a continuous decline in work ethic, with percentages falling from 63% to 44%. It’s no wonder girls are moving ahead in academics. Percentages of girls who felt they were hard workers (varied between 57% and 63%) were higher at every grade level than they were for the boys. More girls just seemed to work harder.

The Gay Issue

If you walk around with a gay kid, the other kids say,"Are you turning gay or something?" If you hang around with skateboard people, you're known as a skateboard dude, and if you hang around gay people, you're known as a gay dude. 8th-grade boy

Robert called me gay because I wouldn't tell him who I liked. So I just told him I liked the hottest girl in our class, and then he stopped calling me gay. 7th-grade boy

The negativism surrounding homosexuality is incredible. In fact, the term gay is used to describe anyone or anything that is boring or uncool. The prejudice in middle schools against homosexuality is so dominant and so hateful that children who believe they may be homosexual suffer terrible emotional abuse. In my middle school focus groups, kids who accepted gays were hesitant to discuss their support of the issue. It was as if they ethically believed gay rights should be protected, but they feared their peers might label them as being gay if they spoke up too fervently.

Furthermore, boys felt so worried about being labeled gay that it may have increased the pressure on them about being popular with girls. More boys were worried about being popular with girls than girls were with boys.

Kids should learn about homosexuality from their parents before they enter middle school and middle schools have some responsibility for teaching about homosexuality and preventing gay bullying.

The Pressure To Be Popular

Popularity has always been an issue in middle school, but kids today are absolutely certain the problem is more intense for their generation than it was for their parents’. Kids told me that the right clothes and labels, makeup, piercings, and appearances are the most critical ingredients for achieving popularity.

Kids are piercing earlier, like piercing their belly buttons. A girl in our class even got her tongue pierced.
6th-grade girl

Students in my focus groups said that popular kids shunned less popular kids. They believed that popular kids even had control over some teachers and that teachers believed what popular kids said about other students. The students in my survey ranked popularity as their top concern—tied only with fears of a terrorist attack on our country.

The popular people are the classifiers. They walk around the school and put scorn on you if they see you as unfit to be talked to. They either insult you or turn up their noses and walk away.
7th-grade boy

Fat kids are called ugly! Small is the perfect size. 5th-grade girl

Thirty percent of middle school kids who completed my survey worried often about being popular with girls, followed closely by worrying about the pressure to have nice clothes (24 percent) and being popular with boys (22 percent).

Physical attributes are often determining factors for status, so it was no surprise that 22 percent of students also worried about being too fat, and 17 percent worried that they weren’t pretty enough.

Media Input

Overall, middle school kids spent more than four times as many hours watching TV and computer monitors as they did completing homework. That doesn’t even count movies. It’s no wonder they talk much more about media stars, violence, and sex than they do about social studies or science.

I kind of trick my parents into letting me see R-rated movies. I say I watched it on TV and already saw most of the violence on there, so let me see the real movie. 6th-grade boy

The word bitch is so common in current music that you’d think the women’s movement had never existed, yet many adolescents aren’t bothered by the insults. Girls don’t protest—they may be used to hearing it, or they lack enough gumption to express their concerns for fear it will harm their popularity. According to a study that was published in 2001, violent lyrics increase aggressive thoughts and feelings in young adults.

The Recording Industry Association of America insists on the right to free expression and only voluntarily labels CDs that contain extreme profanity and sexual lyrics, but they don’t label albums that contain sex, violence, and strong language. These CDs need to be classified, since parents can’t take the time to listen to every CD their kids buy. Reasonable labeling, at least, permits parents to set boundaries for their kids.

The violence that's portrayed in music is one reason why there's so much suidical stuff. The number one reason why teenagers die is suicide, and then it's drugs. Those are all portrayed in music, so it's a really big influence.
7th-grade girl

I urge you to make it clear to your kids that they aren’t allowed to buy inappropriate music, even with their own money.

Celebrities have always been magnets to kids. However, cable TV’s expansion of the sexuality and violence portrayed by these celebrities causes serious endangerment to our children. The television and motion picture industry proclaims that the “reel world” only mirrors real world violence and sexuality, but former chairman of the FCC Reed Hundt disagrees: “If a sitcom can sell soap, salsa, and cereal, then who can argue that TV violence cannot affect to some degree some viewers, particularly impressionable children?” Let me assure you that most middle schoolers are impressionable children.

In June of 2000, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported that within the previous year, one in four children had unwanted exposure via the Internet to pictures of naked people or people having sex. There’s no way of knowing how many more children actually visit pornographic sites intentionally, since few households (only 34%, according to NCMEC) used filters or blocking software on their computers. Computers should be in a family room where parents can monitor computer activities and kids need clear limits for computer use.

- Crimes against Children Research Center (June 2000). “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth.” National Research Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Bullying Can Damage

The troublemakers determine who's in and who's out. They're tougher and meaner and confident that they're the best. The most extreme ones are bullies. They bully kids who are short or fat or get all A's.
6th-grade girl

Even tweens with good self-esteem may wither on the vine from continuous taunting and teasing by powerful, popular kids or obnoxious bullies. They will have to do more than just cry about the problem, although a few tears when they come home distressed are justifiable and should receive your support and an understanding hug. Beyond comfort, your children will need some tools for coping that will diminish the problem.

The kids in my focus groups were particularly malicious toward overweight kids. Although very underweight boys were also ridiculed, very underweight girls were well accepted.

Good Family Relationships

In all areas of my survey results, it was apparent that good family relationships have the power to combat adolescent fears and worries. Kids with very good family relationships worried less about all appearance and popularity issues, including being pretty enough, pressure to have nice clothes, popularity with girls, being too fat, or not tall enough. It’s gratifying to realize how influential parents can be in relieving some of the angst in middle school youngsters.

We need more freedom; parents are just too over-protective. It isn't fair that we should be bossed around by our parents 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 6th-grade girl

Parents just aren't involved enough. 8th-grade boy

Some parents are just right. 8th-grade girl

Although kids vocalized complaints about parent control, they assumed that their minor battles with their parents were normal and didn’t interfere with their happy family relationships. This should reassure parents that middle schoolers expect and accept guidance from adults. Clearly, this means that when your kids roll their eyes at you in apparent protest, they hear your message anyway—so don’t back off too much. They need you to guide them.

©2005 by Sylvia B. Rimm. All rights reserved. This publication, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author.

*From Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report on the Secret World of America’s Middle Schoolers by Sylvia Rimm. (Rodale Publishing, 2005).

©2008 by Sylvia B. Rimm. All rights reserved.
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