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Tweens-who are they?

Stuck in the middle between childhood and adolescence, today's preteens are experiencing an identity crisis.

  • Swami, 12, Little Neck, Queens

  • Ryan, 9, West Village

  • Ariana, 11, Chelsea

  • Andre, 12, Hell's Kitchen

  • Alexandra, 8, Upper West Side

  • Zaki, 10, Chelsea

  • Rebecca, 12, Upper East Side

  • Juan, 11, Stuyvesant Town

  • Susan, 8, Bronx

  • Julietta, 8, Union Square

  • Steven, 12, Staten Island

  • Emma, 9, Upper East Side

  • Kara, 8, Astoria, Queens

Swami, 12, Little Neck, Queens

Photographs: Caroline Voagen Nelson

I once had a job at a Subway Sandwiches on Broadway and 95th Street. I wiped down the counters, rushed to the grocery store when we ran out of tomatoes, washed greasy plastic trays and stacked cans of soda in the fridge. What's interesting about this story? Three things: I worked for exactly 40 minutes a day, during my school lunch period; I was having the time of my life; and I was 11.

A group of us worked there together, all fifth- and sixth-graders at the public school down the block, and if I weren't still in touch with a few of them, I might wonder whether any of it actually happened (there is some disagreement among us about whether we were permitted to use the electric slicer). Now I'm a mother of two sons, ages eight and 11, and although our apartment is just a few blocks from where that Subway stood, we inhabit a different New York City, one where fifth-graders serving up tuna subs would probably elicit numerous calls to the police.

In the late '70s, we were called preteens. It's not a word you hear much anymore. Today's eight- to 12-year-olds are tweens, and it seems that the job description has changed along with the title. Tweens have a dazzling instinct for technology, teen-flavored taste in clothing and music, and a shocking amount of consumer power, not to mention really hard homework. I know one 11-year-old whose summer reading list included Don Quixote. But are these kids actually being pulled in two directions at once?

"I'm allergic to the term tween," psychologist Michael Thompson tells me. "It makes me queasy." Thompson, who has written several books about child development and is coauthor of the best-selling Raising Cain, adds, "It feels like people are trying to invent a phase: 'adolescent wanna-bes.' There's a way in which it is pushing children toward adolescence, as if their childhoods had already ended."

Marketers are usually credited with inventing the term, and there's a less-catchy one they've been using lately, KGOY, which refers to nothing short of a cultural phenomenon: kids getting older younger.

Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, argues that it's marketers themselves who are largely to blame for the KGOY trend. "It's called aspirational marketing," she says. "What they have done is say, 'Well, since the 12-year-olds want to be 15, we'll market to them as though they were 15.' Kids are getting the trappings of maturity earlier and earlier, but there's no evidence that their social and emotional development is keeping pace."

Sharon Lamb, coauthor of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes, and of the forthcoming Packaging Boyhood, agrees. She has spent the last handful of years analyzing the messages that kids receive through media and marketing, and has surveyed more than a thousand eight- to 12-year-olds. For girls, she says, the message is "Sex is power," while boys are being sold brute force from a young age. There's also a new male role model in town: the slacker. Though he may not be macho and competitive, Lamb worries that the slacker teaches boys that "it's not cool to actually try." (Making an effort is so 20th century.)

"Traditionally," says Linn, "these years are a time of great intellectual and creative flowering." But today's tweens "are getting the preoccupations of adolescence at younger ages."

How has it happened? Here's a riddle: What has four eyes, four legs and more than a trillion dollars to spend each year? According to Greg Livingston, chief development officer at Wondergroup, a Cincinnati-based marketing company, the answer is the mom-plus-kid "superconsumer" demographic (alternatively called "the 4i4l"). Unlike their predecessors, children wield enormous consumer influence. "Parents today are very focused on making their kids happy," Livingston explains. "They'll ask them, 'What do you want to eat? What movie do you want to see? We're going to look at cars; why don't you come along?'"

So now we know why SUV commercials feature kids testing the electric doors while their parents nod approvingly in the background. The marketing trend also explains why there is never a television moment without several available varieties of tween programming. Seventeen billion advertising dollars will support a lot of Zack & Cody.

Maybe all of this would matter less if our kids spent less of their lives in front of screens. Wondergroup's Livingston calls it "cocooning": "We used to get on our bikes and roam. Now, for many kids, unless they're on a structured playdate, their environment is within a couple of houses or apartments, instead of an entire neighborhood. Their outreach is through television and the Web." Why? Because their parents won't let them out.

At a dinner party last winter, I found that I was the only mother in the room who let her ten-year-old go around the corner alone to buy milk. "My kid could never do that," one parent told me. "His head is still in the clouds half the time."

"Ten is the new two," says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. Last year, Skenazy received national attention—and not the good kind—for allowing her nine-year-old to take the subway home alone from Bloomingdale's. She says, "The assumptions are that you should be there constantly, and that your child is in constant danger."

Skenazy believes that parental fear is driven by the constant newsfeed we've all come to expect: "You turn on the TV and the worst possible thing is happening, somewhere, 24 hours a day." Television dramas are also to blame. Skenazy cites a Mayo Clinic study that compared two seasons of CSI with the actual crimes committed during the same time period: Television crimes are generally committed by strangers, whereas real-life crimes are not. "So you get the feeling that all crime is random, as if lightning bolts were constantly raining down from the sky," Skenazy says.

In a recent essay for The New York Review of Books, author Michael Chabon wrote, "At times it seems as if parents are being deliberately encouraged to fear for their children's lives, though only a cynic would suggest there was money to be made in doing so."

What's the harm?, you may ask. What exactly is it that we take away from our not-yet-teens when we shield them from every conceivable form of danger? The answer has something to do with the feeling I got every time I showed up for my 40-minute-a-day job in 1979: the feeling that the world recognized me as a capable person.

"Kids like to feel that they are doing something of value," explains Michael Thompson. "Boys who like organized sports like them because it feels like they're doing something valuable, and by that I don't mean getting good at soccer. I mean entertaining adults."

Skenazy agrees. "When you give kids independence, they think, 'Now I'm not just a superfluous person.' Young people always had a purpose until very recently. These are like kings and princes that we're raising...peevish and bored."

In his essay, Chabon describes his daughter's elation at learning to ride her bike, followed quickly by her realization that there was nowhere for her to go. They venture out together after dinner one day, she on her bike, he on foot: "What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn't encounter a single other child."

All of this seems to call for some kind of collective action. "You've heard of Take Your Kids to Work Day?" Skenazy asks me. "I want to organize a Take Your Kids to the Playground and Leave Them There Day." Meanwhile, Skenazy encourages her children to be part of New York's "street life." Walking home from school without adult supervision, they have found their own secret places—like an old-coin shop that was somehow invisible to her. In one small adventure, a Tupperware container of snails, collected for show-and-tell, drew a crowd of kids on the sidewalk. It's like she's very carefully—if not desperately—protecting a flame that has all but gone out.

One spring weekend when his friends were en route to play what I call "faux pro" soccer in Westchester, my 11-year-old son was in a mood that went way beyond peevish. He wanted to do nothing, talk about nothing and go nowhere. My mother called from her apartment on West 95th Street to see if we would come over. She needed help programming the remote control for her new cable box. He held the phone away from his ear and asked me, "Can I go over there by myself?" It was farther than he'd ever gone alone. I nodded.

Ten minutes later, he called on his cell phone. "I'm in front of that theater, on 95th Street," he said. "I'm turning here, is that right?" He was standing on the corner where my Subway Sandwiches used to be. "Yes," I told him. "You're going in the right direction."


5 things to let a tween try solo

1 Go to the store to buy a missing ingredient for dessert (Why should you always get to be the hero?)

2 Pick up a younger brother or sister from a friend's house or a piano lesson

3 Retrieve the clean laundry from the dryer in the basement

4 Walk home alone from the diner where your family ate breakfast

5 Walk to soccer practice in the park with a friend

Rebecca Stead lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and their two sons. She is the author of the middle-grade novels When You Reach Me and First Light (Wendy Lamb/Yearling) .

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