Do we treat children too much like adults? For decades, conservatives have said the answer is yes. But now it seems that liberals are finally catching on.
In her 1999 book “Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future — and Ours,” Kay Hymowitz argued that we have come to believe children as young as 8 are capable of emotional maturity. We let them make decisions for themselves about everything from their friendships to bedtimes, and we have bestowed upon them information — particularly sexual information — in the name of being open and transparent.
The result: Too many kids — girls, especially — have been growing older younger.
Now a new study out of Georgetown University bemoans what the authors call the “adultification” of black girls in particular. Originally undertaken to explain why African-American girls are punished both by schools and the juvenile justice systems at a higher rate than their white peers, the study — “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” — concludes that the grown-ups around them simply see them differently.
Surveying 325 adults from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, educational levels and geographical areas, the authors found that “participants viewed black girls collectively as more adult than white girls. Responses revealed, in particular, that participants perceived Black girls as needing less protection and nurturing than white girls, and that black girls were perceived to know more about adult topics and are more knowledgeable about sex than their white peers.”
The first thing to notice about this study is that it does nothing to explain disparate rates of school suspensions. Like so many investigations, the authors never bother to find out whether black girls are committing infractions at a disproportionate rate. How does it help to know that black girls are three times as likely to be disciplined by school administrators for fighting if we don’t know whether they are more likely to actually engage in fighting?
But leave that aside. If it’s true that adults do perceive black girls as older than they are, as knowing more about sex and adult topics, maybe we should wonder why that is. The authors, perhaps unsurprisingly, trace the reason back to America’s original sin. They cite another scholar explaining that, “Beginning in slavery, black boys and girls were imagined as chattel and were often put to work as young as two and three years old.”
Again, the authors refuse to examine the most obvious explanation. What if black girls really do know more about adult topics, including sex, than their white peers?
According to a 2011 study by researchers at Northwestern University, minority kids watch 50 percent more television than their white peers. They use computers for up to 1?½ hours longer per day. A 2015 study from Common Sense Media found that black youth have almost three hours more screen time per day than their white peers.
Given that exposure to popular culture (including sexual information and even pornography) is one of the most common ways that kids learn about adult topics, perhaps the effects of this on black girls aren’t surprising.
But the situation is actually worse than this. Parents of these children are often unaware or unconcerned about the dangers that media can pose to their children.
According to a Pew Survey, “parents living in low-income households [a disproportionate number of which are minority homes] . . . express significantly lower levels of concern about their children’s online interactions with people they do not know; just 39% say they are ‘very concerned’ about this issue, compared with about six in ten parents in higher-earning households.” (It’s true that lower-income parents often prioritize other dangers — like neighborhood violence — but the effects of too much media exposure can have real life effects.)
The fact that adults (both black and white) see African-American children as too much like adults isn’t a sign that they’re racists. It’s a wakeup call that we need to do more to protect black children from a culture that is hurting them.
?Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. Twitter: @NaomiSRiley