Making The Young Old Before Their Time

*by Paul Robertson*

Being a school guidance counselor can be quite an adventure these days. In the span of a few weeks, a guidance counselor friend of mine dealt with the following issues - one girl drunk in the washroom; three boys suspended for setting a fire in the school dumpster; a boy arrested for threatening two girls with a knife; reprimanding a girl for showing too much cleavage; reprimanding a group of girls for showing too much leg; one request for a pregnancy test; a young lady caught carrying a butcher knife in her backpack; a Wiccan feeling discriminated against; and one case of physical abuse by a dysfunctional father.

It is hard to believe that these are the stories walking the halls of our schools every day. *It is even harder to believe that all these kids are eleven and twelve years old.* Remember when school used to be a safe place to be? Today, our schools have become microcosms of the culture at large and all the problems and pressures kids face. Our modern culture is increasingly making the young old before their time.

For too many kids today, growing up is far more complicated than it was a generation ago. Life for children appears to be stuck on fast forward. It seems that every parent I meet has an eight-year-old daughter going on twenty-one. Our little boys seem more interested in issues that were once the sole domain of early adulthood.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes is the early physical development of young girls. Medical researchers are calling it "precocious puberty" - the medical term for sexual maturity that arrives abnormally early. Medical researchers and professionals report that more and more girls as young as four years old show significant breast and pubic-hair development. The main finding of a recent *Pediatrics report* (April 1997) is this - overall, girls are showing significant physical development one year earlier than previously believed. Earlier development is also being noted among young boys, but because it is less obvious, namely the growth of their testes, it isn't as recognizable. Some early male development is also reflected in earlier growth spurts in their height. Professor Joan Jacob Bromberg also brings early maturation home in a salient observation in her book *The Body Project*. She reminds us that today we have young girls having babies at an age earlier than when their grandmothers even had their first period.

Why is this happening? Researchers posit various theories. One of the most controversial is that environmental toxins digested by mothers during pregnancy are triggering these physiological changes ahead of time (*The Globe and Mail*, 1/25/00.).

*The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology* (August 2000) theorizes that young girls who have a good relationship with their biological fathers in the first five years of life will reach puberty at a normal age because the scent of a biologically related male is an evolutionary signal to inhibit maturity. In addition, those girls exposed to a lot of unrelated adult men achieved puberty earlier.

Other scientists attribute early maturity to the fact that our kids are eating better and more often when compared to children a hundred years ago. Dr. Denis Daneman from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto says a critical body mass has to be reached before a girl will menstruate which explains why an overweight little girl is more likely to reach puberty before an athletic one (*The Globe and Mail*, 1/25/00).

Whatever the cause, it appears our little girls are growing up way too fast. The Girl Scouts of the USA recent research paper, *Girls Speak Out* (January 2000) addresses some related issues our kids are facing. Most little girls feel the pressure, often brought on by the media they watch, to look and act more like older teenagers. This stress is heightened when parents are too busy or not prepared to talk to their children about such concerns. Many parents don't feel it is appropriate for their child to be thinking or talking about issues like sexual development and relationships at such an early age. When parents are not willing to engage their children on these matters, kids will often turn to the media for answers to their questions about life. Girls may look physically older, but they are not prepared emotionally to deal with the fallout.

Our culture caters to premature adulthood. In many ways our children are enticed by marketers to dress, act, and talk older than they really are. When I was a young boy, my mom always used to have to tell me to act my age. Today, our culture encourages kids to act older than their age.

Remember when you had to be a high school student before you could have dances? Remember when only adults got black belts in karate? Remember when movies for kids didn't have any sex or swearing in them? Remember when young girls didn't wear tight- fitting and suggestive outfits? Remember when beauty pageants were for only older teens and young adults?

Youth are growing up in a world that expects them to look and act like adults but without the privileges. In a lot of ways, early adolescence is about exploitation. It's all about consumption of products that make you appear and feel older than you are. Thanks to the music industry, this age group can see and hear music with messages beyond their understanding. Ten to fourteen year olds now account for 9 percent of all CD sales in America (*Newsweek*, 10/18/99). Often the CDs contain explicit lyrics. I recently spoke with a mom who was purchasing *The Marshall Mathers* LP by Eminem (see Fall '00 *youthculture@2000* for more details) for her 10-year-old daughter. This is a CD filled with hatred towards women, vulgarity, and a variety of things that no young person should hear. When I asked the girl what she liked about Eminem, she replied "Everything. I love everything about him." Mom had no idea what she had just purchased for her not-so-innocent little girl.

Media is also happy to introduce younger children to an adult world without moral boundaries. The *2000 Roper Youth Report* reveals that 58 percent of American kids have a TV in their bedroom, up seven percent in two years. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 32 percent of kids age 2-7 have a TV in their bedroom (*Kids and Media at the New Millennium*, November 1999). With the average child watching nearly three hours of television per day, this opens up a whole new Pandora's box. The Parents Television Council (*What a Difference a Decade Makes*) latest research shows that on a per-hour basis, sexual material was, overall, more than three times as frequent in '99 as it was in '89. It also showed that references to genitalia were more than seven times as frequent in '99. There is virtually nothing our children can't see and hear in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

More and more clothing stores are catering to the younger market. Through teen magazines, tweens (ages 8-12) learn what it at least means to dress like a teenager. Little girls are encouraged to be cool with the latest silk bedtime outfits. Clothes are increasingly immodest. The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Club Monaco and others are all targeting younger kids with older fashions. Any tween who has ever picked up a teen magazine or watched the latest show targeting teens knows what it takes to be cool.

However, even marketers are not without problems in catering to this new generation. Toy retailers have long struggled with "age compression", which the industry defines as the lowering of the age when children stop playing with traditional toys. Over the last two years, the trend has accelerated. Girls, for example, are now past the Barbie stage by age eight, instead of 11 or 12 (*Globe and Mail*,11/1/00).

Many younger kids are carrying pagers and cell phones that permit them to stay in touch with parents and friends but also add to the appearance of adulthood. Our culture is suffering from what I call the "Jon Benet syndrome" - forcing little girls to dress and act like little women. Nickelodeon's Bruce Friend reports by the time they are 12, children describe themselves as "flirtatious, sexy, trendy, athletic, cool" and that by age 11 children in focus groups say they no longer even think of themselves as children (*City Journal*, Autumn 1998).

Parents also need to be aware of the role they play in encouraging early development. Patricia Hersch writes in her book, *A Tribe Apart*, about the striking aloneness of this generation. Kids today are more isolated from adults and have more time to themselves than any other generation. In the absence of parental influence, young people turn to their peer groups - who swim in the same media ocean - for guidance and direction on life issues. Too many kids are making moral decisions in a familial vacuum. Parents need to be aware of how much time they may NOT be spending with their children. Lack of a parental presence leaves them vulnerable to the whims and wishes of peers and media alike.

What's the fallout of all these changes our kids are going through? It is becoming commonplace for parents attending our seminars to be asking more questions pertaining to this issue of early development.

Here are some practical things parents can do in their fight to preserve these critical years so that their children can be just that - children:

* Understand the culture. Things are changing quickly and parents need to be aware of the transformations our youth are going through. Every day media and peers provide new issues for our children to deal with. Take time to familiarize yourself with the world of your children and the pressures they face.
* Protect their innocence. While the culture works hard to lead our kids into premature adulthood, we need to work hard to guard against it. We need to be the gatekeepers of their hearts and minds. We need to provide kids with space and time to just be kids.
* Take time to listen. As uncomfortable as it might be to admit our kids are growing up so quickly, we still need to face the issue. A listening ear now could prevent many problems in the future. Don't give them a reason to turn to other less reliable sources such as media and friends. Don't let your silence become their permission slip to look for guidance elsewhere.
* Cultivate a healthy self-respect. Kids struggling with body image and acceptance need someone to believe in them. We should be our kid's greatest cheerleaders in the development of their own individual gifts and abilities so that they find security in who they are as a uniquely created child of God, not in what they look like.
* Value their concerns. If the issue is important enough for our kids to want to talk about, you should value that concern and address it in age-appropriate ways. If it is important to them, it should be important to us.
* Don't be obsessed with your own body image. Parents need to be careful about what they say about their own bodies through their values, attitudes, and behaviors. Your children will often take their cues from you. More is caught than taught.
* Treat your early developer as a child. Your son or daughter my want to act and talk older than they are but they still have the mind of a child. Treat them accordingly.
* Keep talking. Research shows kids age 8-12 still think parents are the most reliable source of information. Take the time to initiate conversations about the issues you think they are dealing with. Developing good communications systems now will pay dividends throughout their life.
* Don't be afraid to set limits. Kids were made by God to live within boundaries. Take time to set limits on the amounts and types of media they may consume, establish dress standards that are reasonable, and ensure time for family activities.
* Don't forget early development is becoming "normal." As we see more and more kids developing earlier, it will be less and less a phenomenon. We don't need to panic, as we are not the only parents going through it.

Not long ago I asked a high school student for the best bit of advice she could give to parents on behalf of all teenagers. Without hesitation, she said, *"You tell all the parents that the world I am growing up in is nothing like the one they grew up in."* Perhaps truer words were never spoken for a generation of children today. It may be very different from our childhood, but with diligence and love, we can raise healthy kids who don't grow up too fast or too soon.

Reproduced with permission from [The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding](


I Love You Just The Way You Are

*By: Walt Mueller*

I experienced pains of "anticipatory agony" the night before my seventh grade gym class assembled on the cinder quarter-mile track for the annual mile run for time. I remember praying two prayers as I lay fitfully awake on that eve of aerobic despair: "God, please help me finish!" and "Please don't let me finish last!" Both prayers were answered.

Unfortunately, I remember something else about that day. After the run, I joined my peers in that all-too-common junior high ritual that leaves many kids feeling like a heap of trash: we laughed at the overweight and out-of-breath kid who, once again, crossed the finish line last and all alone.

The early adolescent years combine fast-paced change and the confusion of wondering, "Am I normal?" Add to these insecurities the desire to fit in and a peer group that knows little or nothing about sensitivity, and you've got a volatile mix. Remember what it was like to walk the junior high halls and feel like every eye was focused on you and how you didn't seem to measure up? It's the same today. There are insecure kids who find themselves labeled as "popular," and the remaining insecure lot who get crushed under the weight of serving as stepping stones in the struggle to build up one's self by putting others down.

The standards of today's acceptance game have been raised. The new emphasis on physical beauty and body shape established by media icons have left changing girls and boys wondering, "Will I ever be good enough for somebody to love?" Thin is not only in, but sexually desirable. Consequently, many kids are spending more time in front of the mirror and more time lying awake anticipating another day of nasty junior high ridicule.

Twelve-year-old Sammy Graham had one of those nights back in August of 1996. With the first day of school scheduled the next morning, this outstanding student from a solid loving family had gone to bed after praying with his father and two young brothers. The next day, before anyone else was awake, Sammy took a flashlight, rope and step stool into the backyard. Later, his father found Sammy's dead body hanging from a tree.

Sammy was apprehensive about the teasing he'd have to endure because his 5'4" body carried 174 pounds. The pain of death was more bearable than the pain of a ridiculed life. The pressure was just too much.

We can learn many lessons from Sammy. First, we must constantly remind our kids of their uniqueness as God's handiwork, knitted together and formed according to His purpose and plan. No matter how much worldly standards change, their Heavenly Father sees each one as beautiful.

Of course, transferring this truth from mere words to reality requires a second step: We must point out the appearance lies of the world and emphasize the truth of their standing in God's eyes by giving them a show-and-tell shower of time, love, acceptance and affection.

This battle with our culture's horribly skewed standards doesn't look to get easier any time soon. But we do know that junior high kids who are confident in themselves and sensitive to others typically have something special happening in their relationships with dad and mom.

Several times a week I run at our local school track. Recently, I have shared the track with a number of physical education students as they run the mile for time (poor kids!). During one recent jog I watched as the teacher blew his whistle signaling the start of the run. Naturally, the most athletic members of the class took off at a fast pace. The rest of the class lagged behind but kept moving ahead (I did hear a few moans and complaints as even I was able to pass them).

Then I watched in wonder as a beautiful sight unfolded. There on the track, far behind the pack and even further behind the athletes, walked two figures side by side. One was a girl, terribly overweight. For her, running a mile was probably impossible. But walking next to her, voicing words of encouragement, was a slender and athletic-looking peer who looked as if she could have run and perhaps even finished first.

Four laps together... from start to finish. One person was saved from humiliation. The other, well, her parents should be proud. I was reminded of the simple command of Jesus: "Love one another as I have loved you." I'm in the midst of watching two of my own children struggle with those junior high pressures and expectations. I'm convinced that living out these words of Jesus at home is one of the best gifts we can give our young adolescents.

Reproduced with permission from [The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.](


Growing Up and Clamming Up Too Soon

Recent television news images of young adolescents grieving the violent shooting deaths of classmates and teachers serve as reminders of the intense pressures facing today's children and teens. Forced to grow up by the constant and increasing barrage of pressures many adults never faced, today's kids need parents who are in touch and working hard to keep the lines of family communication wide open.

A new study released by Philips Consumer Communications indicates that even though our culture forces kids to grow up too soon, parents are taking little time to talk with their kids about the stuff that really matters. The "Let's Connect" study examined the communication patterns and content of middle school students (grades five to eight) and their parents. Here are some of the "Let's Connect" findings:

**Parents and their middle schoolers don't spend enough time talking**. The survey found that most parents (58%) and almost three-quarters of the kids (73%) say they spend less than one hour a day talking to each other. Sadly, nearly half the kids (46%) and a quarter (27%) of the parents say they talk less than one-half hour a day.

**Parents don't know what's important to their kids**. If parents aren't listening, they can't understand. That accounts for the difference in parents' perceptions of kids' priorities. Parents said the top ones are: 1) fun; 2) friends; and 3) looks. While these things are definitely important to kids, here's what the middle schoolers listed as their top priorities: 1) their future; 2) their schoolwork; and 3) family matters.

**Kids don't always find it easy to talk to dad and mom**. Only one in five kids (20%) say it's easy to talk to their parents about the things that really matter. More than a quarter (26%) said it was "somewhat difficult" or "very difficult" to do so.

**Parents and middle schoolers both say they aren't allowed to explain themselves**. Ever find yourself listening harder to what you think your teen is saying rather than what they're really trying to say? You're not alone. Most kids (57%) said their parents don't always give them a chance to explain. Just more than half the parents (51%) felt the same way, saying their kids do the same.

**Middle schoolers like the opposite sex**. Some two-thirds (62%) of the kids said the opposite sex was an important issue. Only half (52%) of parents thought their kids were interested in boyfriends or girlfriends.

Overcoming these communication barriers is an important key to leading our children from childhood into a spiritually and emotionally healthy adulthood. CPYU echoes the communication tips for parents offered by the "Let's Connect" researchers. Here are those suggestions:

**Make time to communicate**. Your kids want to talk. They need time and opportunity to talk. Make and take the time for communication. Start with simple things that are often forgotten, like eating meals together or talking while riding in the car.

**Listen to the little stuff**. You may not think it's important to listen to what your kids have to say about school, friends, homework or what you consider "trivial" issues of early adolescent life. If so, you're wrong. These things are important to your kids. If they know you aren't listening about the little stuff, they probably won't come to you about the big stuff. Take an interest in everything they have to say.

**Listen between the lines**. Sometimes they find it difficult to open up about the difficult issues they are facing. At other times, they may struggle to find the right words. At all times you must pay special attention to what they might be trying to say. Read their expressions. Listen to their emotions. Ask clarifying questions. You'll be helping them open up.

**Ask their opinion**. Do you want to make your kids feel valued, special and important? Ask their opinion on a regular basis, and don't forget to listen as they share it! Ask about the important and
not-so-important issue - everything from school to friends to the job you're doing as a parent to politics, etc.

**Don't interrupt**. Give them time to explain their opinions, even if you think you know what's coming next. If you've been interrupted, you know how quickly good communication can get cut off.

Reproduced with permission from [The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding](


The Need for Unconditional Love

"Teens and parents need each other, especially in times of crisis. Don't let fear or misunderstanding keep you apart." Check out more on [The Need for Unconditional Love]( Mary Beth Bonacci has some wonderful insights to share with us all. ([](


Facing Up to the Vocation of Their Children

By Sister M. Beata Ziegler, FSGM

Vocation Director for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a Confirmation Retreat focused on vocations. During a session with parents and sponsors of the Confirmation candidates, two young ladies from a local university were sharing about their experience of feeling called to religious life and the subsequent reactions of their various family members.

One Mother's first words were, "Are you gay?"

(I think my jaw hit the ground at that one!)

Then there is the old adamant stand-by, "We want grandchildren!"

Or even, "We want you to make something of your life."

Honestly, my tolerance with some parents has reached a low ebb as I work daily with young women and see the opposition that many of them face from their parents. So, I've had to step back and look at the reasons parents oppose their children embracing a vocation to the religious life or priesthood.

Parents have a very big responsibility in raising children and helping to carefully guide them in life. Asking questions and exploring life's options with your children is an important duty. However, I have a few suggestions for parents, grandparents or anyone who is giving advice to a young person who is thinking of a religious vocation.

1. Analyze your initial gut-reaction to a child or loved one who has announced they are thinking of entering religious life or the priesthood. Did the words you used reflect any sort of selfishness on your part? If you said, "I want," during the conversation, think about this:

"Parents must regard their children as *children of God*..."
Catechism of the Catholic Church #2222

If the main reason for opposing a vocation for your children is because of your own desires, be it for grandchildren, prestige or financial security, then you must begin to see your children as separate from yourself. Pray to see them as a GIFT that God has given to you. Ultimately they are children of the Heavenly Father.

2. Is your reaction based on your own past experience with priests or religious?

Often if parents have been hurt in the past by priests or religious, then they see that vocation in a negative manner and don't want their child to "turn out that way." Each individual makes choices about how they will live their lives, whether they are religious or married. A vocation in itself does not make someone sinful. People in religious life or priesthood have sometimes not chosen to follow Jesus as they vowed they would do. Pray for healing of past hurts and try to see a vocation as a gift to your child.

3. Are you hesitant because you know very little about religious life or the priesthood?

For most people, at the root of their concerns is a lack of understanding of religious life. It is good to ask questions and find out more about each religious community that your child may be exploring. Our Lord wants us to use our free will and educate ourselves in the truth, so that an embrace of our life's vocation may be done in full knowledge and in love. Encourage your children to learn more and to lovingly follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

"Family ties are important but not absolute. Just as the child grows to maturity and human and spiritual autonomy, so his unique vocation which comes from God asserts itself more clearly and forcefully. Parents should respect this call and encourage their children to follow it. They must be convinced that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus: "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Mt. 10:37; CCC 2232

The vocation to the consecrated life or priesthood is a gift. This gift is given to some but not just for her or himself, but for the whole Church. Time and time again, I have seen families benefiting more than they ever could have imagined because one or more of their children embraced religious life. God will not be outdone in generosity. If your hands are open, freely giving your children back to God to follow in His ways, then your hands will be open to receive the blessings that He will in turn pour out upon you!

As you look at your child, young or old, may your heart sing...

"May these little feet not wander from You.

May these little hands be raised in worship.

May this little heart be hungry for You.

May this gift of life be given back to You!"

(From the song *Gift of Life* by Andy Cloninger)

Check out this book: *The Meaning of Vocation: In the Words of John Paul II*. Scepter Publishers, ISBN 0-933932-99-5.

For more on the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, visit [](

For information on the priesthood and religious communities in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, visit [](


Finding Time for Fathering

[Finding Time for Fathering]( by Steve Wood

Calling all Dads! Are you wanting to spend more time with family but are worn out from work? Whether a veteran or brand-new Dad, here are some tips on how to balance work and fatherhood.