Tonight one of my all-time favorite movies was playing on television: the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
I love this movie for oh so many reasons, the main one being that when I was little, all I wanted was to be Matilda. When I expressed this to my friend, they were confused: “Why?” Well, why not? She’s intelligent, independent, and self-aware. She reads a lot, picks up books off the shelf using telekinesis, and gets to live with Miss Honey and roller blade around the living room. As a child, this was my dream.
Kids seem to think differently these days, though. Twice a week, I volunteer at a local elementary school as a “lunch buddy,” meaning I sit with the children at lunchtime and chat with them. The children range from ages five to eleven, and it’s so fun interacting and building relationships with them. However, I’m constantly shocked by how un-childlike a lot of these children actually are.
From what I see and hear at the school (especially among the fourth and fifth graders), the kids are preoccupied with media standards. Little boys brag about how many people they kill in their video games, and snicker to one another as they make lewd gestures and sexual remarks. The girls are cliquey and eat peckishly, trying to dress like high schoolers with flashy clothes and makeup.
I understand how, developmentally and cognitively speaking, these children are in a stage where identity and role-confusion are their most pressing issues. And I was a kid, too, not too long ago: I remember how we giggled about sex and tried to act like we knew what was going on. But these kids.. I don’t know, it just seems different. Like more of a priority to them, as if they are scared of being “left behind” and try to fill in the blanks themselves. Perhaps I feel such a chasm between these kids and myself at their age because I went to a Catholic elementary school without much diversity, whereas the students here are from a wider variety of backgrounds, both culturally and socioeconomically speaking. Maybe I was sheltered – or maybe these kids are just too exposed.
I remember when I was in fourth and fifth grade and had crushes on boys. That’s natural. (Although my obsessive diary entries probably aren’t so much..) The kids here, though, are literally so intent on getting a girlfriend or boyfriend that they ask each other out – and get rejected – on a daily basis. Desperate for a girlfriend, one fifth grade boy resorted to asking out a kindergartner. A kindergartner! Like she even knew what “dating” was. As it turns out, she didn’t, and asked a teacher. This same boy told me that he broke up with his last girlfriend because “she wouldn’t do it” with him. That’s so scary to me! I asked them once what dating meant to them, and they said they didn’t really know, “just hanging out.” They don’t know, but at the same time, they do. They are aware that sex is out there, that it’s a “big deal” that older people get to do, and in their quest for identity, they attempt to know it, too.
I don’t think you should shelter your kids, but I don’t think you should release them into the world to learn about things like sex and self respect and values from just anybody. You need to be honest with your children (in the context of what’s appropriate for their age), especially when they approach you asking to clarify something they heard from someone else. Uninformed kids learn about things from equally as uninformed kids on the playground, and then pass it on to others at lunch time, thus creating a dichotomous cycle where the children become both ignorant and experienced at the same time.
Having so many body image and self esteem issues as I do, I’m most concerned with young girls. Why aren’t there more Matilda’s, more Harriet the Spy’s? Instead, they’re trying to emulate ideals and standards that grown women grapple with. (That, however, is a whole other blog post..)
This is not to say that all the children at this particular elementary school are sexualized or inappropriate. There’s one boy in the fourth grade, for example, who is so engrossed in his books that you have to remind him to eat his lunch or else he forgets. I think that’s wonderful. A dream, even. A lot of the kids there are intelligent and articulate – including the kindergartners – and when I talk to them, I forget that I’m talking to a person ten to fifteen years younger than I.
It just breaks my heart to see kids (little girls, especially) become so entrenched in what the media and internet tell them is normal or expected of them. Just be kids! Run around, play in the mud, draw, read, dance, have sleepovers – do something fun and curious and rewarding. I get that kids will be kids, and things like sex and kissing and boys and cooties all exist and are worth giggling about. I mean, that will always be the case. However, I think kids can joke about that, and leave it at that – a joke, not a cue or standard.
How about you? Do you think kids are growing up too fast? Do you see this as a problem, or do you think it’s okay? I’d love to hear your opinions!