SPURRED on by the toxic combination of marketing, media and peer pressure, many children are growing up too fast and trying to behave like adults, when they’re very definitely still children and should be enjoying playing and having fun.
Past research by UK parenting website Netmums (netmums.com) found more than two-thirds of parents thought childhood was over by the age of 12, and a third by the age of just 10. And while we might expect young teenagers to try to act like grown-ups, the tween years of 10-12 seems too young to lose the innocence of childhood, when kids should still be having fun, instead of worrying about their appearance or trying to look macho.
“The years before a child becomes a teenager can be a challenging and stressful time,” says Alex Gray, service head of the NSPCC’s Childline (childline.org.uk).
“It’s common for young people at this age to feel pressure to appear more grown-up and almost fast-forward into their teenage years. These pressures may have been exacerbated over the past year, due to the countless challenges children have faced in the pandemic.”
And psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of the Good Play Guide (goodplayguide.com), says: “Children don’t tend to have a particularly sophisticated sense of time, so telling them there’s plenty of time to do adult things when they grow up, would just get a response of ‘I want it now’.
“But if they’re surrounded by playful adults, then play stops being seen as childish, so it’s about parents and older adults in the family modelling playful behaviour, playing family games together, and just being silly and having fun — then play won’t be seen as something that just little kids do.”
Gray and Gummer say there are many things parents can do to help children in their pre-teen years relish the simple joys of just being a child.
Gummer stresses play develops many valuable skills, whatever the age of the child.
“It reduces stress, increases attachment, and creates memories. Kids of all ages really benefit from it,” she says.
And Gray adds: “No matter how old a child is, play is a great way to have fun, relax and exercise, and it’s also central to good mental health.
“Remind children how important play is to their wellbeing, and although they may associate conventional forms of play with younger children, let them know there are many ways older children can play and reap the benefits.”
Anything with a tech element is cool, says Gummer, and tween-aged children might like playing family games that an older role model would enjoy playing with them.
“Using someone the kids look up to, to model playful behaviour will encourage them to play more,” she points out.
Gray suggests parents ask children what they enjoy doing.
“They may enjoy playing a sport or an instrument, or they might be interested in art,” he says. “Whatever they enjoy, remind them that taking regular time to do it is important for them and their wellbeing, and they shouldn’t feel embarrassed or pressured to stop doing what they love, just because they’re getting older.”
Gummer advises parents not to throw away younger toys, especially cuddly ones or collections like Sylvanian Families.
“They do regress to it, and if there are times when they’re feeling a bit worried, tired or under the weather, they may take comfort in playing with their old favourites, even though for 90% of the time, they’ll seem to have grown out of them,” she says.
Remind children play is important for adults too, and enjoy play-related activities as a family, advises Gray.
“You could invite friends and family to your own mini-Olympics, set up a gaming tournament on a game of your choice — like Minecraft or FIFA, dig out your favourite board game and have a family games night or, if it’s a warm day, have a water fight in the garden.
“After the year we’ve all had, and with many families having been stuck indoors for months, at the NSPCC, we think we could all do with a bit more play.”
Gummer points out there’s a tendency to say things to younger children like ‘That’s so grown-up’ or ‘You’re such a big girl/boy’ as praise.
“Kids always want to be older than they are and there’s a lot of aspirational stuff around about doing things early,” she says.
“There’s a lot of upward pressure, and anything parents can do to fight back against that - by not using growing up as a form of praise or incentive - could help.”
Gray says parents should remind children that just because they’re getting older, it doesn’t mean they have to deal with things on their own.
“Have open conversations with them and tell them you’re still there to support them with anything worrying them, or that they’re feeling pressured about,” he advises.
Gummer points out that many tween-age children still like playing with toys, but wouldn’t have them out when their friends are round, or admit to playing with them because it’s not seen as cool.
“So, if you can help them develop their self-confidence, then they’re more able to say, ‘This is who I am and this is what I like playing with’,” she advises.
If your child’s worried they aren’t like other children their age, remind them there’s nothing wrong with being different and encourage them to try not to compare themselves to others, advises Gray, who suggests writing down what they like about themselves could help them feel better.
Tween-age children will want to seem more grown-up if they’re fighting to get trust and independence, explains Gummer.
“The kids that are getting that trust and freedom are likely to be more accepting of staying childlike in other ways,” she says.
“They’re more comfortable in their own skin, so they’re less likely to try to be cool.”