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'90s FAMILY : Miniature Grown-Ups : With Pricey Possessions, Lessons, Sports and Endless After-School Activities, Is It Any Wonder Childhood Is Cut Short?


It's Friday, and a girl sits in class crying because she doesn't have a date for Saturday night. She's in fourth grade.

A mother does repeated double takes when she spots her daughter's classmates sporting tiny Doc Martens. They're in kindergarten.

A boy wants his own Nintendo game, but his parents hold out for years. They give in when he is 8.

These are all small slices of childhood life in the '90s. Parents complain about how fast their children are growing up, all the while making material and lifestyle choices that help to quicken the pace. Somehow, a "well-rounded childhood" has come to mean one filled with pricey possessions, lessons, sports and endless after-school enrichment.

"We don't need to have all of our important experiences before the age of 12," says Alessandra Scemama, a teacher at Highland Hall, a private school in Northridge. "Children are given little time to be children. They don't have adventures any longer. Children often find themselves whisked off to ballet or architecture class. All of this keeps them in the fast lane that doesn't let them stew around and do nothing."

Children need time for the kind of play their parents remember, says Cynthia Whitham, a clinical social worker and staff therapist at UCLA's parent training and children's social skills program. "Children's ability to make and keep long-term friendships comes from one-on-one unstructured play, the old-fashioned play where kids hung out in the front- or backyards," she says.

Some parents make time for their kids to be kids by limiting their extracurricular activities, giving them the opportunity to learn to entertain themselves. In the Sharrigan home in North Hollywood, extracurricular activities are unofficially limited to about one per child because "that's about all that Mom can handle," Patricia Sharrigan says with a laugh. Mia, 7, takes piano, while Alex, 11, is on a soccer team.

Christine Honeyman, a counselor with the Irvine Unified School District and a family therapist, told the story about the fourth-grade girl crying over her lack of a date. She says children are increasingly participating in activities they are not ready for.

"Earlier and earlier, kids are turning to each other. I have a real concern that parents be there to hold and touch their children," she says. Scemama stresses turning away from television to come up with more quality time. "It's important that families come together to do real tasks, for a child to learn they are needed in a family. We all cook dinner, clear the table, clean the house. It doesn't mean sitting at the computer and doing Windows with them."

Kathie Vitanza of Agoura limits her children's exposure to "a lot of things because it does make them grow up way too fast." The Vitanzas don't watch TV or play video games and rarely go to the movies with their four children, who range from age 2 to 8.

Scemama encourages parents to discourage excessive activities. "Children don't need to do classical ballet until after 9. They can have a dance experience at home. Put on music and dance with them. With sports, it's the same thing, when they are around 9, when they can work as a team," she says.

Rosemary Gale, who cut back on her hours as a secretary in the Irvine School District to be home more with her two daughters, says she thinks parents give in to their kids more and buy them more goods because they are working. Her 13-year-old just highlighted her hair without her mother's permission, but Gale won't let her get a second hole pierced in one ear. "You can slow childhood down to a certain extent," says Gale, 42, "but sometimes you have to pick your battles and decide what's important, otherwise you are just going to be arguing about everything."

Vitanza, a stay-at-home mother, views inattentive working parents as the source of the harder edge on many children today.

"It seems like parents almost want their children to grow up too fast," she says. "They want them to be wise to everything."

Because of their parents' vigilance, Vitanza says her children have remained "very innocent, and they are nonagressive.They are not adults in children's bodies."

"It's really, really a shame that things can't slow down. I just feel like it's almost impossible," says Sharrigan, who let her son have Nintendo after a friend urged her husband to "get with the '90s." "I feel like I'm on a tidal wave sometimes. It's hard to jump off. The pressure to let kids grow up starts so early."

Now, as her 11-year-old son seeks increased independence, Sharrigan often finds herself responding with, "I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable with that," to his request to watch an R-rated movie or walk to the local Thrifty. "I tell him, honey, you have your entire life to be grown up."

The following are tips on how to keep children from growing up too fast:

* Let children experience boredom. Kids need to learn how to entertain themselves and discover imaginary games.

* Don't turn a child into your peer. Especially in divorce, parents often turn to their children for help or support.

* Dress children for childhood comfort, not adult fashion.

* Teach patience. Children need to look forward to rites of passage, whether it's sleeping over at a friend's house or a first pair of high heels.

* Introduce activities that automatically slow down the pace. Plant a garden, learn to knit, do a jigsaw puzzle.

* Tell them what your mother told you: Go outside and play.

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