No longer a little girl

Mark A. Hadley

For all the technological differences, I think an ancient Egyptian plonked in the middle of modern Sydney wouldn't have too many troubles with the way we view our kids. Base-relief pictures of Pharaonic families, carved into the stele ornamenting tombs from 2600 BC, display a curious way of looking at children. Their clothes, bodies and expressions mimic those of surrounding parents. Apart from their size, they are in almost every respect miniature adults. It is a perspective - maybe not artistically, but certainly socially - that western culture is rapidly adopting.

Every day children are getting older, but not just because of the passage of time. The recent photos presenting 15-year-old Miley Cyrus in a pose more familiar to adult porn stars than Disney prodigies demonstrate the pointy end of the trend. Opinion pieces decried the inappropriate aging of a ". role model to six-year-old girls the world over".1 The presumption that this was too much, too soon fuelled a similar furore directed people teaching pole-dancing classes to girls as young as seven.2 And concerns that children were learning a sexual vocabulary too advanced for their years forced the withdrawal of the toy Peekaboo pole-dancing kit from British retailing giant Tescos.3 However it seems that only the extremes cause alarm in a culture that is engaged in the much broader project of aging its youth.

The fashion industry has been busy turning children into miniature adults for some time. There are, of course, worrying elements like hipster jeans and tube-tops for girls too young to flaunt the curves and breasts that inspired their creation. But more than that, children's fashion seems to mirror that of adults without even the slightest concern for functionality. Why does a baby need lace-up joggers? Or a toddler cargo pants? Adults have enough problems working out what to do with all those pockets. Many producers are not so much designing for children as extending their market share. The graphics printed on the miniature clothes made by high-profile fashion brands like Billabong and Esprit are often indistinguishable from their adult versions. Children's fashion, once a niche market, has now become a source of incredible growth worth an estimated $2 billion a year.4 The result is the 'Egyptian phenomena' - children who look more and more like miniature versions of their parents.

Consumerism has also played its part in artificially aging our children. In 2003 the federal government estimated that young consumers were worth at least $4 billion a year to the economy.5 With marketing campaigns directed solely at children, today's youth find themselves requiring more money than ever to participate in their own commoditised culture. A survey by Quantum Market Research discovered the average 'pocket money' had doubled over a ten year period, with 25% of children aged between 10-17 receiving more than $50 a week. Psychologists say money has lost its mystery for the young as they increasing adopt adult purchasing patterns.6

Undergirding the fashion and finance trends is the philosophical belief that children are now capable of dealing with ideas that were once the sole province of adults. In the '70s, caring for kids might mean 'protecting' them from the more alarming factors of our existence. Today, primary school assignments can require children to interact at a 'junior' level with issues like global warming, natural catastrophe, the legitimacy of democracy and the grounds for a just war. A child's exposure to advanced communication technology, particularly the Internet, has let the big bad world out of the bag. There is, after all, no sense keeping quiet about information that can be accessed from their mobile telephone. It comes as no surprise that 16% of children aged 6-11 are likely to suffer heightened levels of anxiety.7

And when a child finishes with their formal education for the day, they relax in front of entertainment that informs them of their increasingly mature social responsibilities. Juvenile dramas like Home and Away, Neighbours and Blue Water High show teens making decisions about sexual consent and contraception, education and career as well as asserting their rights to negotiate family decisions on the basis of their standing as individuals. The characters might be mid to late teens, but the audiences are often far younger. The result is an increasingly younger range of 'kidults' who believe they can and must be allowed to make mature decisions.

However, if you are concerned at the prospect of little Jenny or Johnny taking on increasingly adult concepts, it's worth considering that the age we inhabit is the historical aberration when it comes to children's maturity. In the first century a Jewish boy like Jesus was considered to have become a man at the age of thirteen after he underwent his bar mitzvah. Similarly Jewish girls like Mary were considered to be ready for marriage not long after. In the 17th century the Church of England considered a person to be mature enough to take on their full religious responsibilities through confirmation in their early teens.8 John Wesley, for one, was confirmed at the age of 8 in the 18th century.9 Examples of earlier maturity than we currently allow for abound historically and are not limited to any particular culture. By contrast, the protracted period of adolescence that delays the taking up of all adult responsibilities till a person reaches 18 or even 21 is more modern phenomena.

As a parent, I would be the last to say that children should be encouraged to take on every form of adult responsibility. I do wonder, though, whether well-meaning Christians have been captured by the 'protracted childhood' approach when it comes to evangelism. I chose the religious examples above deliberately. We may in fact be treating children far younger than our culture treats them or necessity requires. The result is a 'dumbing down' of the message because we don't believe they're ready for a 'serious Gospel'.

You can see the evidence for this sort of thinking in highly juvenile forms of youth ministry that are so focused on games and activities they are qualitatively little different from the crèche services offered to children a decade younger. Under the influence of this mind-set, every Bible talk is reduced to that of a morality tale, particularly those in the Old Testament, and disturbingly adult topics like death and damnation are left to a 'more appropriate age'. The ultimate expression of 'protracted childhood' thinking is avoiding asking children to make life commitments to Jesus on the grounds they may not understand what they are doing - as if salvation was something that came to us through mental acuity.

As adults, as parents, as a church we need to begin re-evaluating what our children are capable of absorbing and understanding. The last few decades seem to demonstrate that treating children as innocents for longer and longer periods will not forestall the serious decisions they have to make, only leave them less prepared to make wise ones when the time comes. The society we live in is fast reducing the gap between child and adult, and clearly not always in a positive way. But retaining a juvenile approach for our youngest members will simply make our faith seem more childish to them in the face of their increasingly adult world.