Ten is the new 13 for girls growing up today and there is so much pressure on them to leave their childhood behind well before they hit their teens, says Australian author Madonna King.
She has been writing about parents and children for 25 years and shares what she has learnt from them as well as experts.
Her new book, L Platers: How to Support your Teen Daughter on the Road to Adulthood, offers insights into the lives of 16 and 18 year old girls and what might help them negotiate the complicated world they live in.
Even from the age of 10, girls nowadays know so much more about the world than previous generations thanks to the internet, King tells Jesse Mulligan.
“That age particularly is such a difficult cohort because today at school, you’ll have 10 year olds who will talk to me, some about their Build-A-Bear, others ask me whether there’s going to be a chapter on boys and to have that difference at that age sitting around the lunch table at school today makes it very difficult to the girls but the parents as well I think.”
Although King says this generation of teens are non-judgmental towards each other, but they are brutal in self-judgement.
“There’s this thing, I call it a disease, that’s affecting our teen girls and it’s something called perfectionism.
“[It happens] as early as 10, but when you get to those final years of school, it’s just so strong.
“Girls will not hand in work, and some boys too, if they don’t think it’s perfect … And then when they get to years 9 and 10, they sometimes don’t hand in an assignment or don’t turn up for an exam because then they can say, I didn’t get a bad mark, I didn’t hand it in.
“I think that really worries educators because it’s [meant to be about] having a go. And we know having a go builds confidence and it builds independence.
“I think it’s so sad that our girls particularly are judging themselves so early and that self-judgement is never good. It is always just brutal.”
Part of that comes from the culture of comparison to others, which has been imported from social media platforms, she says.
“When you and I went home after school, there was white space … we could shut that front door and shut out the noise, now that’s not possible.
“In addition to that, our children are seeing ads, dark ads they’re called. So on their social media if they’re looking up a particular dress to wear to a school dance or something, similar dresses will continue to pop up in dark ads.
“Their mums or dads won’t see that, they only last a few seconds so university researchers can’t really track them, but it means that our children are seeing that endlessly, and they say they just can’t help but compare their life to the life of the person they’re seeing on screen.”
That age cohort is also crucial because most teenagers who present for a mental health problem at 14 or 15 have had the beginnings of it at 7 or 8 years old, she says.
And while these so-called L platers seem to be ‘growing up’ earlier, they still in some ways appear to be not prepared for the real world, King says.
“In parenting, we don’t think 'well this year is going to be a tough year and these are the skills we want. Next year, we are going to do this and this will build these skills'.
“And as a consequence of that, I think we are graduating children who don’t know what they don’t know and Covid has stolen all those adventures where we learnt to make mistakes, we took calculated risks, we made misjudgments.”
We are graduating children with strong book knowledge and have molly-coddled and scaffolded them to their disadvantage, she says.
“University staff said to me they’re now seeing children arrive at university acting more like 15 and 16 year olds than 18 year olds, you know, they haven’t been enrolled to vote, they haven’t got a driver’s license, they don’t know what they don’t know.
“I found girls who hadn’t caught public transport at the age of 16.
“We don’t test for teamwork or kindness or communication or being articulate, but we know they’re the things that determine if you’re going to rise to the top after school. So we’ve got to give them those skills along the way.”
King suggests parents need to let children genuinely taste failure, gradually give them independence, and be by their side.
“At 14, they probably think mum’s a bit like Lucifer often, but at 16 and 17, so many told me that they wanted mum’s advice. They don’t know how to ask us for it, but they want it.
“Older girls 15, 16 and 17 told me how wonderful it was to have dad just reading a book or up when they were studying late at night. They didn’t want to be up by themselves at night but like hell they were going to ask one of their parents to stay up.”
One area where parents need to step back is how we label children, she says.
“An example is one mother said to me ‘mine’s a peacemaker’, one said ‘oh I have the messenger’, another said to me ‘look I’ve got a Queen B and everyone wants to be a part of her, that’s not fair’, another one said to me ‘I don’t know why but I think mine might be a mean girl’.
“And I took those things to experts and they said that children will always become the label they’re given. And that’s true, when I spoke to 10 year olds, and I interviewed 500 of them, they described themselves then in those terms.”
Lastly, practise blocking out the temptations of social media, she says.
“Instant gratification is, I think, a disease of our time. I find myself at a supermarket waiting and I’ll grab my phone and go through Facebook. I think we’ve got to stop and let our kids see us stop and have that white space where they do nothing but ruminate without their mobiles.”