Stealing Childhood

By Rachael Ashak Porter
Issue 133, November – December 2005

Two little girlsHave you noticed the term tween in print recently? Perhaps you’ve heard this age category tossed about on your local morning news program, or seen it emblazoned on a glitter-enhanced banner in the Juniors section of a department store. If not, hang in there’s no doubt you’ll see it soon. You may even notice a tag that’s been created for very young children: pre-tween. What are we getting ourselves into?

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines tween as a child between middle childhood and adolescence, usually between 8 and 12 years old.  The word dates back to the 1960s, years of marketing research reference it, yet what is remarkable is the more recent use of the term by American families. The burgeoning mainstream acceptance of this latest classification for children leads the public to erroneously believe that “tween” is an actual developmental stage, much as we have come to view adolescence as a specific and separate life event instead of what it is: the natural and indivisible progression of a child into an adult.

Only 100 years ago, “teenagers” did not exist. Of course, there were young people between the ages of 13 and 19, but no particular terminology distinguished them from the rest of their community. Not until the 1940s was a special niche carved out for teenagers, a move primarily driven by savvy marketers who saw a brand-new population to target, as most young adults began to attend peer-filled high schools in large numbers for the first time.1 This group, marketers knew, spent the bulk of their week away from family and the larger community, and had more leisure hours than previous generations. The seeds of new trends, fads, and gotta-haves would easily sprout in this fertile ground.

And grow and flourish they did. By the 1950s, the counterculture of adolescence had become an undeniable reality, including all the teen trappings: specific music, dances, apparel, and group behavioral standards (think American Bandstand, sock hops, Elvis, poodle skirts, and “going steady.” This era gave birth to the cultural creation of teenagers as we know them today, along with an entire economic system built around them. We now view the teen period as a fact, as if it has always existed as a distinct and vital stage of life  more difficult to traverse than any other. In the last 60 years, we as a society have accepted the entire “teenager” package and have forgotten what life was like for thousands of years prior to the adoption of the teenager paradigm.

Like the teen years, the “tween” period is part of the continuum of life of developing human beings. We all naturally move from one age to the next, yet when a culture labels and classifies age groups, laundry lists of anecdotal “typical behaviors” and “commonalities” has opposed to scientifically based facts of child development form around the new categories. What will happen to our 8 to 12 year olds now that they’ve been labeled tweens? Most will relish the idea and dive into all that tween is defined as, just as adolescents dove into being teenagers: No longer will they have to be called children. Instead, they will gain respect and enjoy increased fraternity with their peers. Children will love the new title. So will marketers, who are encouraging this latest terminology and categorization of America’s young people.

The US Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 40 million children aged 5 to 14 in the US, the largest population segment under 20. (Young people 15 to 19 years old come in a distant second, with almost 21 million members.) The sheer size of the “tween” generation makes it irresistible to companies of all kinds: this age group has buying power in the billions of dollars and is an important demographic in terms of establishing lifetime brand loyalties. An entire industry works hard daily to come up with ways to turn young people’s heads and to keep them turned.

Due to this mainstream marketability, uniquely packaged products of all kinds, targeted television programs, and specialized websites for the 8 to 12 set are popping up all over. For this population, toy giant Mattel has developed a hot new line of dolls named Flavas (FLAY-vuhz). The Flavas website boasts that the doll is the first reality-based fashion doll brand that celebrates today’s teen culture through authentic style, attitude and values. Based on a hip-hop theme, the dolls purportedly “allow” girls to express their own personal “flava.” This statement might be more accurate if the dolls wore a variety of clothes and sported an array of hairstyles, but the Flava dolls are practically identical. All have edgy, street-smart wardrobes (belly shirts, baggy clothes, short skirts) and are coiffed with the latest dos and lacquered with obvious makeup. In 2002 Abercrombie and Fitch crossed the line for many parents when the company introduced its line of thongs for girls. The thongs, with phrases such as “eye candy” and “wink wink” on the front, were for girls 10 to 16 though, according to one news report, the smallest size appeared to be tiny enough for even younger girls.2 The underwear provoked an extraordinary parental and societal outcry, which may have actually turned the tide for some companies. For example, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s website currently features a collection of clothes for young girls that would pass even the most stringent dress code, bar a few short skirts. This collection stands in contrast to the famous twentysomethings’ hip fashion line of a year and a half ago, which mirrored the clothes worn by the Flava dolls. This is not to say that many children today do not specifically seek out fashions with more attitude and sex appeal than their fledgling years should allow increasing numbers of young girls are seen wearing microtops with “2 Hot 4 U” sequined across their prepubescent chests. Though some companies offer more child-appropriate styles, many remain willing to profit from young girls eager to look like their favorite pop stars. These companies include Colours USA, whose stated product line is “teen cosmetics, tween and girls makeup.”

Even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the largest single source of funding for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), joined the wave of categorizing young children when they put the term tween to use four years ago and stated, “The goal is to provide local public television stations with content to reach out to a new audience, 9 to 12 year olds. If you follow the Tweensa link on Nebraska Educational Telecommunications website (http://mynptv.org/nptv/), or go to the Tweens page for WQPT Quad Cities PBS in Illinois, you’ll notice that these sites use the term tween while specifying the age group they are targeting, thereby encouraging self-labeling and categorization by children.

Much of the information on the PBS sites is educational and age-appropriate, and there is no question CPB and PBS offer quality programming overall. So it’s surprising that one of the links on Nebraska Educational Telecommunicationsa^?(TM) website is to It’s My Life, funded by CPB and PBS. If you go to the site and click on Friends, you might find a poll question such as this one, submitted by an 11 year old: “What do you look for most in a crush?” An It’s My Life visitor interested in crushes could also work on a word search that includes the terms boyfriend, couple, flirting, going out, jealous, and rumor.

The Internet is rife with websites and products specifically geared to”tweens,” as well as articles for parents about how to raise their “tweens.” Many sites lump tweens and teens together in one large group, contributing to the notion that 8 to 18 year olds are a single cohort with exactly the same interests and issues those of the “teenager”rather than people along an organic continuum of growth from childhood into adulthood.

If many 15 and 16 year olds struggle while navigating their increasingly sophisticated social world, how are 9- and 10-year-old, “tweens” supposed to handle this new role? When the pervasive cultural consensus tells children who they are and what they should look and act like because they are “tweens,” it could be nearly impossible not to conform to those ideals. Lisa Schab, a licensed clinical social worker, counselor, and author of self-help materials for parents and children, sums up the pros and cons of tweenhood: “While being able to identify oneself as a tween may stimulate a sense of identity and empowerment, the implications of how that term is defined will have a more significant effect. I don’t think that the average 8 to 12 year old has developed the maturity or internal resources necessary to handle facing teen issues.”

A groundbreaking project by the Girl Scout Research Institute, “Girls Speak Out: Teens Before Their Time,” looked specifically at “tween” girls and reported that, “The three areas of child development are not working in sync. [C]ognitive and physical development have accelerated, while emotional development often has not. The imbalance has led to stress and tension, that were not formerly present.” The institute refers to the difficulty of dealing with teen issues before being emotionally ready as a “developmental compression.” The institute’s study concludes:

“Physically, girls’ bodies are maturing earlier than ever before. Cognitively they are acquiring information about the world at an accelerated pace due to environmental influences like traditional media and new media. Since they appear older, society, peer, and family expectations, as well as their own inquisitiveness lead them to adopt “matching” teenage social behaviors. The dilemma is that these same girls do not have the emotional maturity, nor do they have the information, to match their accelerated aspirations and expectations. Girls feel pressured to behave more like “teens” than young girls, even though they don’t quite understand what that means and are not emotionally ready for this change.”

This is why Norrine L. Russell, PhD, executive director of the Ophelia Project Tampa Bay, believes the creation of a “tween” culture [generates] a real need for girls’ programs and services at the middle school level. Russell, who has worked in the area of girls and women’s development for over 15 years, goes on to say, “Every girl in this country should be enrolled in a gender-specific program that helps her to process and react to the changes in herself, her school, and her environment. Until that happens, we do not have enough services for girls.”

As a new generation grows up bombarded by marketing campaigns determined to insinuate themselves in young people’s lives, along with society’s general acceptance of all the labeling, classifying, and encouraging children to be anything but children, will there be any room left in America for childhood? Moms I have come into contact with seem to accept the ideology of tweenhood. They talk with good-humored exasperation about the “tweenies” their four-year-old daughters are beginning to look up to. Considering the rapid and virtually unchallenged acceptance of teenagers just a few decades ago in the US, coupled with the current mainstreaming of a “tweenagers,” can the day be far behind when articles and websites refer to five- to seven-year-old “pre-tweens” as sophisticated and mature .[having] an attitude that’s all their own much as we are beginning to see with “tweens,” and not so long ago saw with teens?3 If the demographics are large enough and there is money to be made, you bet we will.

NOTES
1. K. Knight Abowitz and R. Rees, “What Is a Teenager?” www.units.muohio.edu/eduleadership/courses/334/334_What_is_teenager.html#references
2. Vikki Ortiz, “Parents Say Kid’s Thong Is Just Plain Wrong,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (17 May 2002); www.jsonline.com/news/gen/may02/43941.asp
3. The Little Party Company, www.thelittlepartycompany.com/Pop_diva_Tweens.htm

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Products

Bratz dolls, www.bratzpack.com
Colours USA, www.coloursusa.com/about.html
Flavas dolls, Mattel, www.mattel.com/swap_feat/default_flavas.asp
Kelly dolls, http://barbie.everythinggirl.com/kellyclub/home.asp
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, www.mary-kateandashley.com
Myscene.com, www.myscene.com

Nonprofits
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, www.cpb.org (It’s My Life, http://pbskids.org/itsmylife)
Girl Scouts of the USA, www.girlscouts.org
Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, http://mynptv.org/nptv/
WQPT Quad Cities PBS, www.wqpt.org/tweens/

Conference
“Kid Power Tweens and Teens” conference, www.iqpc.co.uk/binary-data/IQPC_CONFEVENT/pdf_file/4813.pdf

General Research
Bhatnagar, Parija. “Abercrombie: Whata’s the Naked Truth” CNN/Money (2 December 2003): http://money.cnn.com/2003/12/02/news/companies/abercrombie_catalog/
Dougall, J. “Targeting Tweens.” Marketing Web (10 September 2003).
Girl Scouts of the USA. “Executive Summary: Girls Speak Out: Teens Before Their Time.” (2000) http://www.girlscouts.org/research/pdf/teens_before_time.pdf
Hine, T. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. Avon Books, 1999.
Paterson, P. “Tweens Take Over: Y Generation Is the Wunderkind of Brand Marketing.” TD Monthly (June 2003): www.toydirectory.com/monthly/june2003/Tweens_Generations.asp
Population Division, US Census Bureau, “Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population by Sex and Five-Year Age Groups for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2004,” NC-EST2004-01 (9 June 2005); www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2004/NC-EST2004-01.xls
Richmond, R. “Tweeners Get By with a Little Help from TV.” www.melissajoanhart.net/news/029080.shtml

See the Zandl Group, www.zandlgroup.com/press.shtml for a list of articles on the topic of kids and marketing. The websites for Norrine L. Russell, PhD, www.norrinerussell.com, and Lisa M. Schab, LCSW, www.chicagoparent.com/columns4.htm, also contain more information on the topic of “tweens.”

Rachael Ashak Porter is a university academic adviser and freelance writer whose work has been featured in US and Canadian publications. She lives with her family in rural New England.

Photo by Kathryn Langsford.