The Truth About Tweens

Last year, Maja Kahn's look was hip-hop. This year, she's gone glam. Typical outfit: a tight blue tank top, dark blue flare-legged pants, black plat-forms with silver buckles and nine necklaces of brown or silver beads to match the hoops in her ears. Maja's currently battling with her parents over whether to add a third hole to each earlobe; someday, she hopes to tattoo a spider on her ankle or maybe pierce her navel. Although her mom and dad are as cool as any in Montclair, north of San Francisco, they're resisting her pleas. After all, she's only 12.

Way in the back of Maja's closet, there's a baby doll dressed in pink (a color now banned from her wardrobe). This relic of her past was banished two years ago when Maja shed her polka-dot leggings, pastel shorts and frilly T shirts. No longer a child, not yet a teen, she had officially morphed into a tween, the term marketers have coined for the 27 million children 8 to 14--the largest number in this age group in two decades. "When we're alone," Maja says, "we get weird and crazy and still act like kids. But in public we act cool, like teenagers."

They are a generation stuck on fast forward, children in a fearsome hurry to grow up. Instead of playing with Barbies and Legos, they're pondering the vagaries of love on "Dawson's Creek." The girls wear sexy lingerie and provocative makeup created just for tweens in order to complete what some parents call the Lolita look. The boys affect a tough-guy swagger--while fretting about when their voices will change. In many ways, tweens are blessed. For most of their lives, the economy has been booming. They're likely to have friends from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. They're computer-savvy, accustomed to a world of information (and a social life based on e-mail) just a mouseclick away. They will also probably be the best- educated generation in history; a substantial majority expect to go on to college.

Tweens are also a retailer's dream: consumers with a seemingly insatiable desire for the latest in everything, from Old Navy cargo pants to Limp Bizkit CDs. But to parents and teachers, they can also be a nightmare, aping the hair, clothes and makeup of celebrities twice their age while still throwing tantrums worthy of a 2-year-old. Psychologists worry that in their rush to act like grown-ups, these kids will never really learn to be grown-up, confusing the appearance of maturity with the real thing. "What we're seeing is a superficial sophistication," says William Damon, director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence. "There's been no increase in the values that help a kid get through the confusion of life in a steady, productive way."

Of course, every kid's story is unique, and there are certainly lots of youngsters who sail through these years with few problems. But many tweens, even those with sympathetic and supportive parents, say they feel pressured to act older than they feel. Allie Terese Baron-Phillips, 10, of Tarzana, Calif., regularly tells her mother, Brenda Phillips, all the things she's worried about: homelessness, her nightly three hours of homework, the kids in her class who are already pairing off. "My life is really hectic right now," she says. "I'm already doing what some people in the 1800s weren't doing until they were full-grown adults. I get up at 6:30 every morning, go to school and have to rush through all my classes, come home and work on my homework, go to ice-skating lessons, watch a little TV, talk on the phone, do more homework and practice my violin. If I'm lucky, I get to sleep by 11. And then the entire ordeal starts again."

Allie dreams about building a time machine. "It would be great to just sit around, make quilts and bake pies," she says. "Every day I could meet with my friends and have tea. If I lived on a farm, I could get up and collect the eggs in the morning and spin yarn. It would also be pretty cool to go to a one-room schoolhouse with just 10 or 15 other kids. I wouldn't have to learn as many subjects, and the teacher wouldn't be all stressed out." Her mother sympathizes with Allie's yearning for a simpler time. "When I think of Allie and how advanced she is, how much she's been exposed to, it just amazes me," she says. "I'm not worried, though. I don't look at her and say, 'Oh, it's too bad that she's not a child anymore.' I just say to myself, 'She's a child of the '90s'."

Marketers have seized on these preternaturally frantic kids because it's an opportunity to lock in highly impressionable consumers. "They have more market potential than any other demographic group simply because they have all their purchases ahead of them," says James McNeal, professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, who has been studying children's consumer behavior for 30 years. McNeal says tweens have become the "powerhouse" of the kids' market, spending close to $14 billion a year. Increasingly, that money is actually income, he says; younger and younger kids are getting paid for "preparing meals, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, baby-sitting, working on the computer for their parents." In 1997, McNeal says, a typical 10-year-old had about $13.93 a week to spend, an increase of 75 percent over 1991.

A lot of that money goes for clothes. Kids this age desperately need to belong; they believe that having the right "stuff" is the quickest route to acceptance. They spend millions annually at retailers like Limited Too and the Delia's clothing catalog. They're very brand-conscious, like the students at Franklin elementary school in Chicago who insist on Nikes or Reeboks. Woe to the kid whose mom seeks a bargain. "People tease you, like, 'Ooo, you've got Payless gym shoes'," says 13-year-old Andrea Williams. "I like to stay in Nikes."

Their influence goes beyond their closets. Tweens--Leonardo DiCaprio fans--were a force behind the phenomenal success of "Titanic," as well as groups like the Backstreet Boys; 10- to 14-year-olds now account for about 9 percent of all CD sales. They're a huge part of the audience of the WB network, which has made a specialty of creating programs that appeal to tweens (18.5 percent of its audience), along with their older siblings. They're also the target consumers of magazines like YM and Teen People. McNeal estimates that tweens had direct influence over $128 billion in family spending in 1997, with a say in all kinds of purchases--from soft drinks to cars. "Kids invented the minivan," says McNeal, "and just recently, they've been encouraging their parents to sell them and get an SUV instead."

Why do tweens have so much say? Guilt is one factor. Parents who aren't around much often try to compensate by buying their kids almost anything they ask for. The vast majority of their mothers (more than 75 percent) are in the work force, compared with just over half in the mid-1970s. Then there's the bribery theory of child rearing--often effective in the short run. A new CD can buy cooperation in a hectic week.

But tweens' influence also grows out of a dramatic change in family relationships. The parents, who came of age in the free-spirited late 1960s and '70s, have a more democratic ideal than their mothers and fathers did. "People treat each other more like members of a group, rather than as sons and daughters and moms and dads," says McNeal. Debra Korn of Bethesda, Md., the mother of 9-year-old Kelly Rakusin, remembers shopping with her own mother decades ago. "She always picked out things for me," Korn says. "She said, 'Boy, that looks good on you,' and I would wear it, but I questioned whether it was the right thing. And I still feel unsure today. I like it that Kelly knows what she likes." Kelly's taste can be fickle. "Today we went through her closet, and anything that wasn't baggy enough or was a little too short or too tight she wanted to get rid of,'' says Korn. "She says she won't wear them--and she won't. I may as well put them in a bag and give them away." Kelly nods sympathetically: "I don't want to look bad."

Letting kids have their way also means that it's difficult to set limits. "When we ask children, 'What do you think?' it's harder then to turn around and say, 'I was interested in your opinion, but that's not what we're eating for dinner'," says Paula Rauch, a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. Researchers worry that kids may grow up with a false sense of power. They're at the stage where they're beginning to assert their independence; overly compliant parents will give them a distorted view of their place in the world. "They may end up self-centered, self-absorbed, incapable of managing a successful social life, spoiled and unhappy because they're never going to get their own way all the time," says Damon of Stanford.

Although marketers have helped to define tween identity by creating products especially for them, researchers who study adolescents say that the pressure to act like 8 going on 25 really starts at home. Even before they are out of elementary school, many tweens have had to shoulder some pretty serious burdens. "They're being exposed to adult things from birth," says Markus Kruesi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Illinois's Institute for Juvenile Research. Nearly half are children of divorce. Too old for child care but not old enough to travel around town on their own, they're often alone in the afternoon with only cartoons or the computer for company, immersed in a culture their parents don't understand.

But that electronic universe is more comforting than the outside world, which can be scary even in the most secure suburbs. As kids returned to school this fall, thoughts of Columbine haunted every middle-school classroom in America. It was only the latest in a lifetime of anxieties. As little kids, tweens worried about being abducted by strangers and having their pictures ending up on milk cartons. Before they'd even been on a date, they'd heard all about AIDS. Parents like Linda Lalande, 45, of Woodland Hills, Calif., mourn for the lost innocence of their own childhoods "when we could play in the woods for hours by ourselves and our parents had no reason to worry." But she believes she has to be on guard with her daughter, Emily, 91/2, a fourth grader: "You have no choice but to tell them about things like sexual predators and kidnappers."

For some tweens, danger really is just outside the door. Growing up in a single-parent home, 13-year-old Tyler Jimenez of Yucaipa, Calif., learned to look out for himself. Until a year ago, his mother, Dawn Whitson, 37, worked nights as a cocktail waitress. Even when she was home, she was often asleep. "He's had to spend a lot of time alone and learn how to entertain himself," says Whitson, who now has a job with regular hours at the local courthouse. Tyler still gets home first most days. "I do my homework, then clean up around the house," he says. "Sometimes I cook dinner for me and my mom." Whitson worries that Tyler has become something of a loner lately. "He's afraid of being exposed to drugs," she says. "Two older kids on the block... got expelled for drugs. Tyler doesn't want to hang out with them anymore. He won't even go out to check the mail. Instead, he just sits with his computer or his videogames. As an excuse, I've heard him say that he's on restriction and he can't go outside."

Under the best circumstances, these can be difficult years. It's a time of tremendous neurological growth, comparable only to the period just after infancy, that psychologists call the "age of obsession". The transformation in their appearance is equally dramatic. "Their bodies undergo more changes than at any time since infancy," says Mary Wright, former principal of Hillview Middle School in East Whittier, Calif., near Los Angeles. "That means the girls are easily brought to tears... and the boys try to hide their emotions."

Now those changes begin earlier, thanks largely to improved public health and nutrition. According to a study published this month in the journal Pediatrics, most white girls show signs of puberty before the age of 10 (a year earlier for African-American girls), compared with about 15 at the turn of the 20th century. There are indications that some kids--especially in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods--are also becoming sexually active at an alarmingly early age. According to a 1997 Centers for Disease Control study, 6.5 percent of ninth-grade girls--compared with only 2.9 percent of 12th graders--said they had had sex before the age of 13. Boys showed a similar increase: 14.7 percent of ninth graders said they'd already been sexually active, while only 6.0 percent of 12th graders said they'd had sex before the age of 13.

There's also some evidence that a few older tweens are experimenting with oral sex--perhaps after hearing so much about it during the Lewinsky scandal last year. "They are copying what they see in adult movies and on the Internet and other places," says Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "I always tell people that if you have a 12-year-old male in your household, and you have a sex video on the top shelf of your closet that you watch in the privacy of your bedroom, your son has seen it."

Tweens are vulnerable to other problems as well when their physical maturity outpaces their emotional growth. "They're struggling with how they feel about their bodies, what's acceptable and what's not," says Debra Haffner, director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit research group. This is a time when girls--attempting to look like the models they see in magazines--often become obsessed with weight; many develop eating disorders. One recent study found that 39 percent of girls in grades five to eight said they were on a diet; 13 percent of those girls said they had already binged and purged, symptoms of bulimia.

Looks have become a measure of self-worth, says Cornell University historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project," a history of American girls. Brumberg says that 50 years ago, when girls talked about self-improvement, they were thinking of doing good works or doing better in school. Now everything comes down to appearance, she says. "In adolescent girls' private diaries and journals, the body is a consistent preoccupation, second only to peer relationships."

Although there are no reliable statistics on substance abuse in this age group (largely because the issue is so new for tweens, few people have studied it), researchers say they think there has been a huge jump in drug use among youngsters in grades six to eight in the past decade. A 1998 University of Maryland study of eighth graders found that 29 percent had tried some illegal drug. More than half--52.5 percent--said they had used alcohol, and 24.7 percent said they had been drunk at least once.

Researchers say tweens are vulnerable to these high-risk behaviors because they're not getting enough guidance from parents or other responsible adults. "This is a time when they're real curious about the world and they're soaking up other points of view," says Mary Pipher, author of "Reviving Ophelia." "They're not getting enough of that from the people who love them. They're getting it from machines and people who want to sell them stuff." Teachers say that's why an increasing number of kids are becoming behavior problems, unable to deal with everyday conflicts. They see an angry response as the norm. "They spend more time in an unreal environment," says David Eisenstat, a teacher for 20 years, of his fifth graders at Hilltop Elementary School in Inver Grove Heights, outside St. Paul, Minn. "When anything serious crops up in the news, their reaction is based on Bruce Willis movies."

Even in more benign circumstances, they grab on to the fantasies they see on screen. Take 12-year-old Samantha Brooks, a poised seventh grader who lives in Laguna Niguel, Calif. She's got her life all planned out: a career in acting, with a degree from the University of Southern California's film school. She and her pals are particularly fond of the TV program "Friends," especially Courteney Cox's character, Monica, a neat freak who struggles to get her personal life in order. "If you like a show, you take the actors on as a role model," she says. "I think a show like 'Friends' is pretty realistic."

Every generation is an experiment, and there's no way to predict how today's tweens will turn out. According to one recent poll, the "1998 Roper Youth Report: The Mood of Young America," they're optimistic. Eighty percent expected to have a better life than their parents, and most said they liked school. Parents were their most important influences. Too many mothers and fathers step back just when their kids need them most. The best advice: always keep the lines of communication wide open. Get to know their friends. Talk to them about what's going on in school. "They haven't become self-sufficient critters," says W. Andrew Collins, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota and the president-elect of the Society for Research on Adolescence. "Decision making may be more often left to kids, but it depends on support. It's not a bad thing if parents provide a safety net."

That's exactly what Maja Kahn's parents are trying to do. Roger Kahn, a tennis pro who plays in a rock band, is often home in the afternoons; Marianne, a software tester, usually leaves the office by 5 p.m. Both say they're proud of their daughter's 3.5 GPA and her willingness to do chores. She walks Luna, the family dog, twice a day and empties the dishwasher and vacuums. "She's a good kid," says Marianne. Maja is confident that she has her life under control. "The wild parties, smoking and trying drugs, that takes place in eighth grade at my school," she says, "that's out of my league." At least, for now.

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The Truth About Tweens | News