Toronto Star

Sunday, December 6, 1998


Kids are growing up faster than ever. What's happening to childhood?

By Elaine Carey
Toronto Star Demographics Reporter

Rebecca started dating this year, a little late really since her friends, who are just a year older, are already discussing their exes - former boyfriends from the distant past.

``This is what being a good friend is,'' says Jennie. ``I broke up with Kristy's boyfriend for her. I phoned him up and said, `You don't know me but I'm one of Kristy's friends and she just thinks it's not really cool to go out with you anymore.' ''

Says Peter, shaking his head: ``I'm never getting dumped. I've never been dumped in my life.''

Typical teenage angst?

Not quite. These are not teens, they're ``tweens'' - 11-and 12-year-olds who look and act like the teenagers they want to be.

`I'm going to marry a really rich guy, then divorce him amd marry for love. But first I'm going to have his kids so I get child suppport.'
- Kristy Horsenell, 12

They have pagers and clunky platform shoes, boyfriends and bank cards. They wear makeup, experiment with smoking (cigarettes and sometimes dope) and spend lots and lots of money, mostly on clothes, CDs, and lunch.

They're called tweens because they're supposedly caught between childhood and adolescence, but they've long since turned the corner.

The Barbie dolls and GI Joes are gone. Now they're into slinky camisole tops, baggy pants, double dates, hanging out at the mall and being ``cool.''

Ask a group of 11- and 12-year-olds what's cool and they rhyme off in unison: Nike, Champion, Fila, Adidas, Tommy (Hilfiger), flare pants and platform shoes.

Or CDs by Brandy, Monica, Mace, Puff Daddy, Will Smith and All Saints, as well as jewelry, makeup, nail polish, CD-Roms and café lattes after school.

Their sex symbols are Jewel, Joshua Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise. They go to movies a lot, surf the Net and watch R-rated videos. But porn sites and X-rated videos are ``pathetic'' and ``gross.''

Their ever-changing ``in'' looks and idols are fuelled by a range of magazines from Jump - For Girls Who Dare to be Real to Sugar, Girls Life, Kidstyle, Twist, Teen Beat and Teen People.

``They're becoming teenagers much younger and they're staying there much longer,'' says Marcel Danesi, a University of Toronto semiotics professor and author of Cool, The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence.

``The cultural aspects of teens are picked up much earlier now than the physical ones.''

Being a teenager is a cultural phenomenon, cultivated by the media, that younger children can easily adopt, he says. Adolescence, the actual physical changes that signal growing up, doesn't have to happen at the same time. (Although it appears to be happening earlier.)

And the gap between the two is getting wider all the time.

What's cool to these tweens is changing constantly, largely to keep them buying more stuff.

They all want cell phones but pagers will do in a pinch, although they don't seem to know why they want them. It just looks cool.

``My friends page me, my girls page me,'' says 12-year-old Peter Mylonas, who saved up his allowance to buy his.

The girls wear makeup - ``we always do our eyes and wear everything but blusher,'' explains Jennie Murray, but rue the day they dyed their hair - ``tell them not to do it, it looks horrible,'' she wails.

And they never have enough money.

``My mum's way of stopping me from going out too much is to stop giving me money,'' says Lisa. ``I only get $5 for a whole week.''

``My parents don't give me enough money. I have to save my money to buy the things my mom won't pay for,'' laments Alice Bradstreet.

They say the very coolest age to be would be 16 - because ``you would get a really big party and you wouldn't really still be a teenager,'' says Lisa.

But these middle-class tweens say they don't feel pressure from their peers to drink or smoke.

``Everyone's says, like, `That's so dumb,' and, `Oh my God, that's so bad,'' says Jennie. ``Everyone gives us these lectures about peer pressure but we don't have any.''

Their childlike side comes out when they're asked what they want to be some day. It ranges from baseball player to actress and singer to ``lawyer, movie star or millionaire.''

``I'm going to marry a really rich guy, then divorce him amd marry for love. But first I'm going to have his kids so I get child suppport,'' says Kristy Horsenell, half in jest.

Marketers can't wait to get their hands on the 2.44 million Canadian tweens - the largest cohort (defined as 9- to 14-year-olds) since their boomer parents were that age, says Julie Look, director of research for YTV.

Between them, they have $1.5 billion a year to spend - an average of $629 per tween, according to a new survey by YTV - and it's the fastest growing niche market in North America.

The money they have to spend has gone up every year since the broadcaster started its annual survey four years ago.

``These kids were born right into the computer age. They're learning much faster, they're living in a faster lane and they're growing up faster because of the households they live in and the range of media messages they're exposed to,'' Look says.

The change has not escaped Tilly Stephens, an elementary school teacher with 25 years' experience. Kids today are definitely more sophisticated, especially girls, she says.

``The brevity of the clothes is amazing - pre-adolescent belly buttons popping out of them. It's sad to look at an 11-year-old cleavage that's better than you'll ever have.

``A lot of these girls have very fashion-conscious mothers who enjoy dressing them this way,'' she says. ``I don't think at heart the kids are really that much different now. But their mothers let them dress this way. The shoes with the huge platforms, the tighter clothes. And you never saw children wearing black before.''

These indulgent, middle-class boomer parents have the chance to let their children enjoy childhood in a way that never happened in previous generations, Danesi says.

They have more money to spend on their children, and because they're the youth-oriented boomers, they want to stay young and in touch with their children.

``They're taking a more active role in the childhood of their children,'' Danesi says.

``They're growing up faster and nobody can stop it,'' adds Nancy Dennis who just opened her second Chickaboom store for tween girls in a year.

Dennis has captured the tween girl market so well that she's been asked to speak about it to the American National Retail Federation in January.

Chickaboom sells designer label clothing - Hollywood, Buffalo, Candies, Guess, Nicole Miller - as well as $140 G-Shock watches, marabou-trimmed sweaters, slinky tops, slip dresses, fake leather coats and the hot Christmas item - pink and purple marabou-covered telephones.

It also sports a nail polish bar where, besides the latest shades of black and glitter polish, girls can apply ``hair mascara,`` butterfly tattoos and glitter gel.

The store is competing with a whole range of retail lines recently introduced to vie for the tween dollars, like Gap Kids, Jacob Jr. and La Senza Girl, all junior versions of the lines aimed at the 18-to-24-year-old market.

``The clothing is not precious and puffy - these kids want to look like teenagers,'' says Dennis, the mother of girls aged 3 and 7. They want what's cool but this is not about making them look 21.''

They not only look and act older but they're hitting puberty sooner, says Dennis, and ``they seem to be bigger, taller and stronger.''

A study of 17,000 girls across the United States has found that the average age at which the physical changes of puberty begins is now 9, a full two years earlier than what had been considered normal since the 1960s. So far, there's no evidence that boys are hitting puberty any earlier.

The University of North Carolina study, published in the medical journal Pediatrics last year, also found that girls are getting taller and heavier, largely due to diet changes in the past 30 years.

To appeal to those newly developed hormones, some stores (not Chickaboom) are even promoting lingerie for 8- to 12-year-olds and perfumes and body oils with names like Follow Me Boy, fuelling criticism of the ``Lolita look'' or the ``hooker look.''

There may be a dark side to the tweening of North America. Smoking rates among older teens have risen dramatically since 1990, and presumably among younger ones as well. Teen pregnancy rates are also rising, and the teens who are sexually active are starting at younger ages, according to the National Population Health Survey.

While some deplore what they see as the death of childhood, Dennis says she sees a positive girl power in some of its aspects.

``What I see is a certain self-esteem and confidence -- they can do anything a boy can do. We talk to them through e-mail and what we see is so positive.''

Shopping with your mother a generation ago was ``a horrible dynamic'' says Dennis, 42. ``She always chose what I wore. But there's a certain amount of empowerment now.''

Teens, let alone tweens, weren't even identified as a group until the '50s, when their image was culturally constructed and enshrined in books, magazines, songs, television programs and movies, says Danesi. From then on, the teen industry became dependent on keeping that image alive.

``It's a youth culture - they market this cool very nicely of course,' he says. ``Kids think `I want to be like that. They look like they're having fun'.

``But it's happening much earlier now. I've seen kids as young as five and six starting to talk and act like teenagers. Rather than playing with Barbie dolls, they're dancing to MuchMusic videos.''

As younger kids began embracing the teenage look, marketers started to realize there was a huge, untapped market out their in the baby-boom echo kids, the biggest wave of children since the boomers.

The kids wanted it and the advertisers and merchandisers were more than happy to provide it.

Danesi, for one, isn't critical of what's happening.

``It's not a good thing or a bad thing - it just is,'' he says. ``They're putting on a costume, a mask, and playing. It scares the more puritanical but it doesn't scare me. They're experimenting with identity and persona and growing up on their own terms.''

But he adds that the closeness between tweens and their parents will be hard on the latter when the desire for freedom sets in.

``It's a little harder on parents than at any time in history. On the other hand, children have never had it better.''