Are Our Children Growing Up Too Fast or Too Slowly?

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The course of child development is a multidimensional one, and while evidence suggests that children are maturing physically more quickly than ever before, there are big questions about whether they are sufficiently developed emotionally and psychologically before they enter serious relationships and start making babies.

There are many indications that children in the industrialized world are maturing at different rates than their parents did. But whether they’re maturing faster or more slowly is a matter of some debate. The debate is complicated by the fact that maturation occurs along many different dimensions (e.g., physical, emotional, psychological, socio-cultural, etc.), and the rates of personal growth and development on each of these dimensions can vary considerably.

On a purely physical level, there is a fair degree of evidence that children, especially females, have been maturing ever so slightly earlier each decade since the 1850s, so that there is now a significantly earlier age of onset of puberty as compared to the 19th century. Studies examining why this is true have thus far been inconclusive, with hypotheses ranging from nutritional factors (with higher rates of obesity and the presence of hormones in the food supply thought to correlate with premature breast development in girls) to stress and social factors. For whatever reasons, however, there is little doubt that physical maturation is occurring earlier.

When it comes to emotional and psychological maturation, there is abundant evidence that on average, kids are being exposed to — primarily through media as well as other environmental influences — and actually engaging in more typically adult activities (including sex, of course) at an earlier age. But there are big questions about whether they have sufficient psychological preparedness to engage in these activities and even bigger questions about how engaging in such activities when they are not adequately emotionally and psychologically prepared to do so affects their overall rates of personality and character development.

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It seems that the answer to the question of whether our kids are growing up too fast or too slow is: “that depends.” On the one hand, kids probably see far more than they need to see and deal with far more than they need to deal with at far too young an age to adequately make sound judgments about — and moral sense of — their experiences. This is especially true with respect to the kinds of sexual situations they frequently encounter. On the other hand, they probably don’t get enough exposure to the kinds of socializing influences (e.g., managing money, appraising relationships) that can adequately prepare them for the responsibilities of adult life. The label “boomerang children” has been applied to those young persons who tried to step out into the adult world and took on the tasks of partnering, parenting, and working, only to return to the nest because they were totally unprepared to do any of these task in a mature and socially responsible fashion. After a period of re-parenting, such children often take another stab at things and some eventually “get it” with respect to what adult life is really all about as they enter their late 30s or early 40s.

There has always been some individual variability with respect to how quickly or slowly a person proceeds along the various maturational dimensions. Unfortunately, in our age of instant, abundant information and all-too-easy exposure to various environmental influences, it’s more difficult to control the degree to which relatively unprepared youngsters might encounter situations they are not fully prepared to handle. And there are few mechanisms built into our formal educational systems to adequately address each child’s particular needs. Nonetheless, as a society, we owe it to our children to provide them with the guidance necessary to enable them to develop both a healthy self-image and an adequate degree of social conscientiousness. If they don’t “get it” before they enter serious relationships and make babies, the social ramifications are enormous (and, ultimately costly). Still, there’s not much agreement on what we need to do to modify our cultural environments to help more of our young people enter adulthood with a minimum essential level of maturity.

Growth is an indispensable aspect of life. And there’s little doubt our children are growing up before our very eyes. So, we must ask ourselves some serious questions about what we need to protect them from as well as what we must insist that they learn so that they will have the maturity they need to handle the demands and challenges of living.

It’s a daunting task.

Given the nature of our current world, it seems like there are some areas in which they can’t learn fast enough, yet other areas in which we pray they slow down just a bit. We need them to grow mature. But it all has to happen in the right time.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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