Jo Rowe looks at a phenomenon recognised by advertisers and begins a new approach with her eight-year-old son.
My youngest is eight-years-old and I find myself in a slight panic that these years are all going by so fast. With my eldest about to go to Sixth Form, I feel the ticking of the clock over my kids’ childhood, the years rushing by with alarming alacrity. I regularly look at the little hand that, I’m grateful, still holds mine as we walk and I want to squeeze it and not let go. How can my youngest be eight?!
I think I probably am guilty of babying my littlest. As the youngest of four, I find myself letting him play a bit longer rather than helping to clear up, or I finish his chores for him when I’d probably have made my others finish them. It’s hard not to hold on tight to his childhood; it’s hard not to treat him like the baby. But he is eight. He is growing up. It scares me.
In my role at school, we were discussing the use of social media and mobile phone use. The year six class were trying their hand at persuasive writing. We looked at the statistics on children using phones, accessing content that was too grown up for them, and the damage that has on mental health. In my research on this topic I came across an article on the BBC The article explains the phrase KGOY that is used in the marketing industry. “Kids Getting Older Younger” (KGOY) is the idea that, because the average child is given a mobile phone at the age of ten in the UK, and have access to social media, and content that is designed for adults, they are being forced into an emotional maturity way before they are ready for it. Marketing and advertisers are now aware that this has opened up a whole new target group and will exploit this desire to “grow up” in order to sell their wares.
In kickback to this forced emotional maturity, many parents feel that they should “let their kids be kids” and lower their expectations for their children to stop them from growing up too quickly. We want to hold on to those childhood years as hard as possible. In fact, evidence is now showing that, despite this growing emotional maturity, the Gen Z generation is actually reaching the markers of adulthood much later than previous generations; finishing education, leaving home, even drinking and engaging in sex much later than their counterparts.
‘Maturity’ around the world
As parents, we are raising our children in a technological age. One that makes our children intellectually savier but identity poor. “Growing up” is a subjective term. In some parts of the world, like Central America, I have seen children as young my son (eight) selling bottled water and chewing gum on the streets to support their family. In Iran, a boy comes of age at nine years old and is then treated as an adult under the law. In our culture, 18 is the magic age where suddenly our children become adults and responsible enough to vote and get married.
Being a “grown up” seems to be desirable in terms of communication, media and clothes for our kids but we are actually seeing children act younger than their years in social situations, resilience and independence. The COVID pandemic has exacerbated this trend. Social media has become the way younger and younger children communicate with the world. Children have been at home more and parents have been, understandably, more protective of their children. The lockdown life meant that our young people were not attending school, university and were being furloughed from first jobs. By most traditional measures they were unable to grow up at the rate that children just a few years ahead of them had done – yet by other measures they were exposed to uncomfortable truths and social responsibilities such as mask-wearing that forced them to confront the adult world more quickly. Along with the fact that there was a heavy reliance on technology and social media to connect with the outside world, with often open-access to adult content. This is all leading to young people who are reaching milestones later and later whilst struggling with emotional burdens of someone much older.
How do we help our kids mature?
As Christians, we often want to protect our children from the world, shelter them and allow them to stay children for as long as possible, but is there a happy middle ground? Where our children act with maturity without losing their childhood? I think there is!
It is important to start by defining what I mean by the word maturity. I am not talking about being adult, using language or engaging in activities that are seen as adult. I’m not talking about losing playfulness or childlikeness. No, I am defining maturity as being able to think through decisions and be aware of how an individual’s choices affect the environment and the people around them. Real maturity is self-awareness and self-control; both, which I feel, are within the grasp of our children.
It is possible to call out the maturity in our children while still celebrating and enjoying their childlikeness by teaching them the value of responsibility and privilege. Age appropriate responsibility is vital for drawing out self-control and self-awareness. Much can be learned by having to take care of a pet, cook dinner, and be responsible for their own environment. The by-product of well managed responsibility is confidence and healthy identity. Our children learn that they are capable and trustworthy; values that stand them in good stead for a confident adulthood.
Case study from my family
A few weeks ago, I started to notice that my youngest son was struggling. He wasn’t participating in family chores (clearing the table and tidying the kitchen after dinner) he was whinier and he’d seemed to have lost his resilience with his homework. There were lots of other signs that something wasn’t quite right with him. After a few conversations, it was clear that his confidence had taken a knock. In his words he was “feeling small”. This is our family language for lacking confidence and feeling left behind. I began to look for ways to call out that confidence and maturity.
A couple of weeks before half term, I hit upon the perfect plan. I asked Jonas whether he’d be able to do me a favour and take his big sister out for breakfast. I explained that he would need to plan the date, write the invitation, order the food and pay for it (I would give him the money). The effect was instant. Something shifted in Jonas. By trusting him to do something grown up, he suddenly seemed to step up. Not only did he plan a great date but he also wore his smartest clothes and took the lead in everything (Kudos goes to his sister who allowed him to lead her!). Since the date with his sister, he has been a different boy; helping with the chores, trying new things, cracking on with his homework. The change has been marked. By calling out the responsibility and honour in Jonas we saw a massive change. He was still a child; the invitation was childlike, his joy was childlike but he could see how his actions affected his sister. He got to see first hand that when we act responsibly and with honour, it blesses people. He physically and metaphorically walked taller!
It’s tricky, as parents, to get the balance of protecting our children from social media and stopping our Kids Getting Older Younger and still teaching them to be mature, responsible individuals. I want to protect my childrens’ childhoods whilst still preparing them for adulthood. So I look for ways to call out the maturity and resilience in my children. I give them age appropriate jobs to do in the home, I give them areas of responsibility, like their bedroom and their homework. I allow them to fail, and I also look for ways for them to practice making grown up decisions when the price tag is small. By calling out maturity I am allowing them to discover what they are capable of. This creates resilience and self-belief. At times I have to admit, as an actual adult, I could do with learning a little of myself!