In CAMD I talk about “age compression” as a culprit in  the Kardashianization of girlhood. Here's how that works: products are initially pitched to older kids; younger ones who want to be “cool” like their older brothers and sister  latch onto them making them instantly anathema to the original demographic. Since for girls being cool means looking “hot” we’ve seen a downward drift of things like spa birthday parties (now the rage among pre-schoolers) and cosmetic use.


According to NPD group, for instance, nearly half of 6-year-olds say they use lipstick or lip gloss regularly and the percentage of 8-12 year olds who use mascara or eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010. 8-12 year olds are among the fastest growing sectors of the cosmetics market, prompting Walmart to launch its popular “anti-aging” Geo Girl line for elementary school girls. This month, Target introduced the Disney Fairies "PixiGlow" line of makeup (which "captures Tinkerbell's fresh-faced, timeless beauty" and includes--kill me now--the  "Straight on until morning eyeliner"). Target also carries Willa Beauty , which is aimed at girls as young as seven. Recall that an early focus on appearance creates a vulnerability to the most common mental health problems we see in girls: depression, low self-esteem, negative body image, eating disorders, risky sexual choices. That belies the argument--typically proffered by the people who sell this stuff--that "tween" cosmetics are "innocent," that they bolster girls' confidence by allowing them to “experiment safely with their femininity.” The truth is the opposite: girls' well-being is undermined by the message, at ever-earlier ages, that who they are is how they look and how they look is not good enough (unless you buy PixiGlow/Eco Girl/Willa makeup!).

But sexualization is not the only place we’re seeing age compression. In 2009 I wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine called “Kindergarten Cram,” in which I talked about how, when I was a child, in the increasingly olden days:

We danced the hokey­pokey in kindergarten,  swooned in suspense over Duck, Duck, Gray Duck (that’s what Minnesotans stubbornly call Duck, Duck, Goose) and napped on our mats until the Wake-Up Fairy set us free.

No more. Instead of digging in sandboxes, today’s kindergartners prepare for a life of multiple-choice boxes by plowing through standardized tests with cuddly names like Dibels (pronounced “dibbles”), a series of early-literacy measures administered to millions of kids; or toiling over reading curricula like Open Court — which features assessments every six weeks.

According to “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” a report recently released by The Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, all that testing is wasted: it neither predicts nor improves young children’s educational outcomes. More disturbing, along with other academic demands, like assigning homework to 5-year-olds, it is crowding out the one thing that truly is vital to their future success: play.

That report mentioned a survey of 254 teachers in New York and Los Angeles which  found that kindergartners spent two to three hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math. They spent less than 30 minutes playing. Now the Alliance for Childhood is back with a new report, "The Crisis in Early Education: A Research-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure." It looks at the rise (and harm) of not only academic kindergarten but academic preschool. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, for instance, found this sad scene on a recent trip to kindergarten and pre-k classrooms in Miami.

[Classrooms] were barren--no materials whatsoever. No blocks, no easels, no play activities. Bare walls. No art.

Children sat at tables while the teacher did individual testing. The kids were copying from the board: "Class Rules. Sit in your seat. Raise your hand to talk. Keep your hands and feet to yourself."

One little boy sat quietly crying in his seat. I looked at his paper. There were messy letters trailing across the page. Clearly, he was nowhere near this task developmentally. It broke my heart to be unable to help him.

This is the woman who  raised Matt Damon, so she must know what she's talking about (she's also one of the country's foremost experts on early education and author of  Taking Back Childhood among other things, but that wouldn't catch your attention in the same way, would it?).

The new Alliance for Childhood report opens with this quote:

While early formal instruction may appear to show good test results at first, in the long term, in follow-up studies, such children have had no advantage. On the contrary, especially in the case of boys, subjection to early formal instruction increases their tendency to distance themselves from the goals of schools, and to drop out of it, either mentally or physically.

I’ve written before that guiding principle, whether we’re talking about sexualization or accelerated academics, is that kids should be allowed to be KIDS as long as possible. Our task as parents is to  resist  everything in this souped-up culture that pushes them beyond their natural development. Our babies only so few years in which they can simply play. Their internally-driven creativity, their fantasy lives, their imaginations are a precious resource that should be cultivated for their own sake, not harnessed to sell products or to create some super-kid who is smarter/faster/earns more money.

So, I'll say it again, and as often as I must:  play, draw, read, build, go for walks, stare at ants, climb, jump, pretend….Repeat (for as long as possible).

And for goodness sake, send your child to a play-based preschool!!!