Time to grow up? Not so fast
Seven-year-old Hannah Thome munched on a chocolate cookie after getting home from cheerleading camp and mulled the question, brow furrowing over her wide blue eyes. Did she want to be older?
“No,” the Tustin, Calif., youngster concluded. “I like being a kid. You get to do more things.”
Her mother remembers Tom Hanks wishing for adulthood in the 1988 film “Big” and remembers wishing for the same. But childhood has changed a lot since then. And that might be changing how kids think about it.
Kids today are increasingly likely to say they like being kids, a survey shows. A whopping 85 percent of children ages 8 to 14 agreed that “I like being my age,” television network Nickelodeon found in surveys of more than 900 children.
That’s an increase from already high numbers at the turn of the millennium. In that same survey, carried out by market research firm Harris Interactive, more than three out of four said they weren’t in any hurry to grow up.
The findings startle many childhood researchers, who have watched as modern kids cast off dolls earlier and gravitate to all things teenage. Yet the phenomenon seems to echo a shift already spotted among teens and 20-somethings – the lengthening road to adulthood.
Nickelodeon chalks up the change among kids to many of the same forces attributed to the longer transition to adulthood, including parents becoming more involved with their children.
“They’re in no rush to be older because they have it so good at home,” said Ron Geraci, executive vice president of research for Nickelodeon. And during the tough economy, “they see what their parents are going through.”
The network said it pursued the survey so it could portray kids and their families accurately on-screen. Children were surveyed online two years ago, and the sample was then weighted to reflect the racial and economic makeup of the country. Mindful of the trends, Nickelodeon recently launched “The Haunted Hathaways,” a new show about a closely knit family, network officials said.
If kids are happier being kids, the growing work of parenthood may be paying off. Several studies back up the idea that parents are stepping up efforts to nurture their children.
Moms and dads are spending more time with their kids than in decades, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of surveys stretching back to 1965.
Parents are also spending more money, devoting a growing share of income to their kids, according to a study published this year in the journal Demography. And more attend or volunteer at school meetings and events than in the ’90s, a Child Trends analysis of federal data shows.
Experts tie the booming investment in parenting to mounting anxiety about kids making it in the U.S. economy. Among the middle class, “a lot of parents are feeling they need to be their child’s teacher, their coach, their friend, their chauffeur,” said Sara Harkness, a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut. “There’s an increasing intensification of what it means to be a good parent.”
Children as equals: The give-and-take between kids and parents also seems be changing. Children’s obedience is seen as less important than it was decades ago, according to data from the General Social Survey, a project of the University of Chicago. UCLA researchers who followed middle-class Los Angeles families noted that parents often negotiate with kids over household tasks, rather than simply ordering them.
In many middle-class households, “there’s a decreasing sense that parents and children are at odds,” said Daniel Cook, an associate professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden. On top of that, if kids are free to do things once barred from children, staying young might seem all the more attractive.
“Perhaps growing up begins to sound like responsibility as opposed to freedom,” Cook said.
In Los Angeles, some moms and dads have embraced parenting philosophies that look little like the way they were raised. Los Feliz, Calif., mother Karen Mejia said that her twin daughters decided to be vegetarian at the age of 10 – a choice she can’t imagine being allowed to make at the same age.
“My mom would have said, ‘You eat your chicken,’ and that’s it,” Mejia recalled. Her 13-year-old son is free to wear his hair long.
“I was never allowed to talk to my parents the way my children are able to talk to me,” said Mejia, who works as a nanny and embraces the philosophy of “nonviolent parenting” with her own children, avoiding rewards, bribes or punishments. “I grew up to be seen but not heard.”
Her husband sometimes asks, “Aren’t you worried that they’re going to treat us like we’re their buddies?” Mejia recounted. But that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to her.
“We treat our children as equals,” she said.
Radical parenting shift: Some scholars believe long-standing changes in parenting have already shown up in adults. For instance, 20-somethings today talk to their parents more often and more openly than baby boomers did at the same age, an AARP survey found last year. The Pew Research Center found that most young adults who weathered the recession by moving in with their parents were satisfied with their living situation.
Baby boomers “didn’t want to have the same hierarchy and distance with their kids” as their parents did, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Clark University research professor of psychology. “They wanted to be more like friends.”
Among parents of adults ages 18 to 29, 73 percent said they had a “mostly positive” relationship with their children, the Clark University Poll of Parents of Emerging Adults found this year.
Yet the changes in parenting could have drawbacks. Some adults fear the devotion to parenting has gone overboard, especially among middle-class families with time and money to obsess over their decisions. Americans have grown increasingly worried that having kids infringes too much on parental freedom, the General Social Survey shows.
Some complain that children are excessively sheltered as parenting goes into overdrive – and lament that parents who aren’t totally consumed by childbearing are shunned.
“If you want to read a magazine while they’re on the playground, that’s seen as selfish,” said Linda Williamson, a Granada Hills, Calif., mother of two. “If you don’t want to share a bed with your toddler, that’s selfish.”
Williamson said she once battled an elementary school over letting her son bike alongside her a few blocks to school – something that other parents saw as unsafe.
Writer Lenore Skenazy, who was flooded with media attention after letting her son ride the New York City subway by himself, said children “kept in bubbles” probably see little to envy in their parents’ lives.
“Would you rather be the princess or the lady-in-waiting? Literally – the lady-in-waiting-in-the-car,” said Skenazy, author of the book “Free-Range Kids.”
In Tustin, Heather Thome says she is no “helicopter parent.” She wants little Hannah to be able to handle the bumps and bruises of life. But she has also tried to make sure Hannah enjoys being a kid, remembering the responsibilities she herself had to shoulder after her parents divorced.
“My daughter has been really funny about saying, ‘I absolutely do not want children. They’re just too much work.’ ”
Hearing that, Thome found herself wondering, “Gosh – is she saying that because of what she sees me doing around here?”