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!!!


Princess Daze in Elementary School

Love this post by Emily Rosenbaum about how "School Spirit Week" is celebrated in her children's elementary school. Each day has a theme including (wait for it)....Princess Day on which girls  are supposed to dress in glitter and tiaras. As are the boys, if they want to, are too--but not because it's okay for a boy to dress like a princess, exactly the opposite: it's clear the boys are supposed to be doing it as a goof, with a wink and a homophobic nudge.

"It’s making the point (rather strongly) that there are things for girls and things for boys and the only times we break through those barriers is to laugh about it.  In other words, rather than making a safe space in which the boys can express themselves, it’s laying down the gender norms even more clearly.  Sure, kid, dress as a princess; it’ll be a hoot.

It’s not a hoot.  Not for the boys who are uncomfortable with their sexuality or gender.  Not for the boys who lack self-confidence and can’t pull off a joke like that.  Not for the boys who, a few years from now, will find themselves in tears when their peers taunt them with “faggot.”  Not for the boys who don’t participate that day because they don’t feel comfortable with the joke or for the boys who participate only to fit in.  Not for the girls who are shoved into the role of flighty consumers."

And not for this boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a 6th grader who hung himself in 2009 after being repeatedly taunted at his new school for being "gay." What would he have done on Princess Day?

As Emily pointed out, her children's school could have had  Royal Day, or a fantasy day, or a dress-like-a-character-from-a-book day. There are so many possibilities for fun, for creativity, for costume in an elementary school. But Princess day? Really?

What do you think? And any advice for Emily?


It's A Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World....

Great piece in Friday's NY Times on elementary school kids who want to wear clothing considered to be for the other sex and how parents handle it. As it happened, the Spanish Dance performance for the 2nd & 3rd years at Daisy's school was that morning. Here are the costumes the kids wore:

Seems pretty obvious that the one on the left is the boys' while the one on the right is the girls'. But it wasn't presented that way. The kids were told there were two costume choices and they could wear whichever they liked. A few of the girls picked the khakis. One of the boys chose the skirt and top. Of course, no one said much about the girls choosing khakis. But here is what the one of the teachers wrote me about a boy choosing to wear "girls" clothing:

We work hard to bust up stereotypes - these things don't just go away on their own.  We talked to the Spanish teacher and let her know that we would be presenting the costumes as two options.  I had a conversation with the class about [the boy's] choice and that it was right for him and that our job was to be supportive and to have his back.  I also let the other 2-3 teachers know so that they could do the same.  Our class totally rose to the occasion and when someone was laughing and pointing, a classmate put his arm around [the boy in the skirt] and pulled him close and said, "Don't listen to them."  a gem of a moment for sure!   We also talked with the boy himself and said that when you make a decision that people are not used to, it can draw attention.  We let him know if anything came up that he felt uncomfortable with or couldn't handle, that we were there to help.  Big, important and sometimes tricky stuff!

One could argue that by having one standard unisex costume the whole issue might have been avoided, but this turned out to be a great lesson for our school community--students, teachers and parents alike.

It also occurred to me that dancing by default with opposite sex partners for Square dancing or other folk dancing might be something to reconsider. It reinforces that contact with the other sex should be in this realm of "opposite" which encourages the stigma around "liking" one another and decreases the possibility of real friendship at that age. It assumes heterosexuality. It denies the spectrum of choices these kids will some day express gender identity (or are expressing now). Another way to go would be to have children either choose partners of either sex or simply assign them randomly.

Or, you can kick up a huge, ahistorical fuss when a little boy wants to paint his toenails pink......

It's Not JUST about Sexualization

Today's New York Times has an article about Kumon academic "enrichment" programs for preschoolers. At best, the article concludes, they are useless. At worst, they undermine kids' love of learning. I wrote a piece about this trend--accelerated academics among preschoolers and kindergartners--in the New York Times Magazine in 2009. It was called Kindergarten Cram. I am adamantly against accelerated kindergarten and preschool--and research backs me up. Sometimes I don't know whether I'm liberal, conservative or just radical on these issues, but my core philosophy is that kids should be allowed to be KIDS as long as possible and that we need to push back against everything in this culture that imposes traits that are beyond their years--whether it's sexualization, mind-numbing computer games, massively licensed products that co-opt their imagination, flash card drills or daily homework. They only have a few years in which they can simply play. The internally-driven creativity, fantasy play, imagination of small children is a precious resource and should be cultivated for its own sake, not to create some super-kid who is smarter/faster/earns more money. It's about "enriching" their HUMANITY not their elementary school grades.

Play, draw, read, go for walks, stare at ants, climb, jump, pretend....Repeat (for as long as possible).

I especially love Alliance for Childhood on these issues.

Also Alfie Kohn, a voice of reason in education. And Howard Gardner at Project Zero