The generation that knew too much knew no childhood

November 30, 1993|By Susan Campbell | Susan Campbell,The Hartford Courant

The 4-year-old girl announced to a gathering of adults that her mother had had her IUD removed.

No one asked the follow-up question, to see if the 4-year-old knew what an IUD was. No one wanted to know.

The 8-year-old boy has watched his older brother, two cousins and a family friend die. One was shot. Two shot up. The fourth, drunk from a party, drove into a guard rail.

The 10-year-old girl comes home alone each day, punches the security code to get into her house, does her homework (when she remembers), fixes herself a snack and then settles down in front of "General Hospital." By the time her father -- her mother lives in Florida -- gets home, she's usually well into the evening television lineup. When he goes out of town on business, a neighbor looks in on her.

For very different reasons, these kids are not kids. They've seen too much as part of a generation of children that some in academia and psychotherapy worry are being robbed of their childhoods.

Perhaps not since Victorian times -- when children wore miniature adult clothing and were expected to be "seen and not heard" -- has so much been expected of the so little.

"I think that there's a generation of adults out there who now have reverted to something that historically used to be the case -- they think that children are little adults," says Jane Farnum, associate psychology professor and assistant dean of the college of liberal arts at Rochester Institute of Technology. "Parents think: 'She's just like me.' It's interesting to try to teach people how children see the world differently."

"Boy, do I feel strongly about this," says James M. Mannon, professor of sociology at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of "American Gridmark: Why You've Always Suspected Measuring Up Doesn't Count," (Harbinger House, $9.95). "Everybody has to measure up to these performance standards" -- and it starts very, very young.

"I'm 50, and my parents wanted me to do fairly well in school, but I think the assumption was that a fairly decent school record would be enough to become somewhat successful in life. I think today parents feel that unless their kids get straight A's and have all of these criteria, they won't get the best jobs. The pressure is intensified because the economy has failed to keep up with the ambitions and desires of all the people who want to achieve."

Ms. Farnum says some affluent parents begin worrying all the way back to nursery school.

"We put tremendous pressure on kids," she says. "And then we make sure they have all the lessons -- dance, gymnastics. We really don't let children have a chance to be children and kind of do nothing."

Besides performance standards, several forces came together in the late '60s and early '70s to shrink childhood. More women entered the work force; television's impact increased; the divorce rate went up. And now, college professors are teaching the first wave of that generation, and if those students are any indication, our world is preparing to change drastically.

"They've missed out on something," says Marcia Summers, associate educational psychology professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "Many of us have. Some people say we are trying to go back and get it now, with all the yuppie toys and people turning around and going back to school at age 50. We are blurring the whole system. What used to be clearly a childhood activity adults are doing. And nobody exactly knows what's going to happen."

"I think children will resent this," says Ms. Summers. "I suspect they may go to greater trouble to make sure their own children have childhoods. You may have '50s-type family values."

Except those values will be translated through the eyes of children who grew up in the '80s and '90s. That may mean a new approach to being a parent, including a return to rites of passage, and perhaps less of an emphasis on competitive team sports.

"I mean, designer jeans for 5-year-olds," Ms. Farnum says. "What is there to have when you get older? We're taking away markers that enable a child to feel like they're kind of grown up now. I was surprised to hear that some schools are beginning to have eighth-grade graduations again."

It's not only single parents who have a hard time finding adult confidants, but Ms. Farnum says they are especially tempted -- in the rush of their day and the fatigue of their night -- to share inappropriate things with their children. Ms. Farnum knows the 4-year-old's mother, the one who'd had her intrauterine device removed. The woman was single and had evidently told her daughter the news when she should have saved it for an adult confidante.

"The increase in single-parent families means there's an adult who's making decisions alone," Ms. Farnum says. "The only person you've got to talk about whether to buy a refrigerator or fix the old one is a 5-year-old. It was clear that her mother had been talking to her. [Some] parents expect emotional support from kids that we used to think parents ought to be giving to kids."

That kind of support is vital for a child's self-esteem, as are some chores that foster feelings of usefulness in a child. In other words, Ms. Summers says, parents should not try to create a perfect world for their children.

"I think parents are trying to do their very best," says Ms. Farnum. "They're trying to do the right thing, but the right thing is to back off and let kids develop at their own pace, in their area, in their own style."

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