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Published: Tuesday, 12/11/2001

Child's youth is fleeting, so why rush it?

The year I turned 12, my mother and I went to San Francisco, where I saw with my very own eyes the notorious hippies that everyone across the country was talking so much about.

I had already been chafing at the lopsided misery of being my age - which is to say, too old for much of what interested me the year before, but too young for the sparkling beacon of young-adulthood that drew my attention to the distant horizon. And when I actually saw Haight-Ashbury, that settled it: I could not wait to grow up, whatever that meant, as long I didn't have to be 12 years old anymore, which seemed to me to be the equivalent of being pinched to death. Hey, my mother subscribed to Time magazine; I knew what my future held.

Hippies! Be-ins! Communes! Really cute boys with really long hair!

Of course, when I was old enough to plot my own young adult course, disco ruled, an irony that's still hard to overlook, but never mind - the point is, when I was a fresh-cheeked “tweener,'' I couldn't wait to leap-frog into the next stage.

“They're like sponges at that age, particularly about current culture,'' says Jack Berckemeyer of the National Middle School Association.

The middle-school configuration under review by Toledo Public Schools - lashing sixth, seventh, and eighth graders together in one giant hormonal knot - exists in some 19,000 other U.S. schools, says Mr. Berckemeyer.

Still, when communities consider adding sixth graders to the middle-school mix, it's always controversial, says Dr. Gary Ingersoll. An Indiana University professor of educational psychology and pediatrics, and until recently director of IU's Center for Adolescent Studies, he says community debates about which grades to include in middle school “get pretty heated.''

He cites two common objections. First, while evidence is “compelling'' that sixth-grade girls can swim the same waters as their older counterparts, not so for boys, “who model behavior of kids who are two years older, and that's a big jump at that age.'' But girls aren't off the hook. Dr. Ingersoll says a second common objection to adding sixth graders to the mix is that the girls “get hit on by eighth-grade boys.''

Both objections, he says, “are legitimate concerns,'' but the real story behind middle-school controversy lies a layer or two beneath the surface. Part of what helps these students navigate the muddy waters of their age group is a solid curriculum geared toward resisting peer pressure.

“It involves good sex education, good drug education, and good alcohol education,'' says Dr. Ingersoll, acknowledging that these issues can be flash points.

“But that all has to be part of the curriculum. When you start looking at the developmental needs of these kids, you start getting into human sexuality, and certain groups will emerge, from the conservative religious right, that tend to get very unnerved by all this.''

But what about those (and I count myself among them) whose concern is accelerating the already rapid rate at which children lose opportunities for childhood?

“There is a tendency for kids to grow up too fast,'' concedes Dr. Ingersoll. “While this is too true, it's also like stopping a speeding train. We need to keep balance between not trying to push it faster and adapting to a changing society.''

Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays,

and Saturdays. Email her at roberta@theblade.com or call 1-419-724-6086.



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