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Kids like being kids, study finds, perhaps thanks to parenting

Children are increasingly more likely to enjoy their childhood. Some attribute this to the involvement — or helicopter pampering — of their parents.

July 21, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Mom Heather Thome and daughters Charlotte Thome, 3, left, and Hannah Thome, 7, play at their home. Heather says she wants her children to enjoy their childhood.
Mom Heather Thome and daughters Charlotte Thome, 3, left, and Hannah Thome,… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Seven-year-old Hannah Thome munched on a chocolate cookie after getting home from cheerleading camp last week and mulled the question, brow furrowing over her wide blue eyes. Did she want to be older?

"No," the Tustin 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% 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 twentysomethings — 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."

In South Pasadena, Annalee Andres remembers her own parents — "really good parents who were really devoted" — deciding not to enroll her and her brother in soccer again because it ate up their weekends. As parents today, "sometimes we go to three soccer games a Saturday," Andres said.

"My parents had a very full life of their own," said Andres, a mother of three. "That's a radical shift in my generation — the parents are child-centered."

The give-and-take between kids and parents also seems be changing. Children being obedient 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 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."

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