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The last time I delivered my annual ‘boys talk’ (sex ed) to the 5th graders in a local parochial school, I was surprised by the dichotomy of maturity and immaturity in the room. A kid with a few new facial hairs, a deepening voice, and a knowing look was sitting next to a boy whose face had just grown pale as he absorbed the gravity of anatomy depicted on the PowerPoint projected in graphic detail. The 11-year-old pre-adolescent was hearing the same message as the 11-year-old child – yet through a much different lens.

According to the National Institute of Health, puberty usually begins in girls between 8 and 13 years of age, and in boys between 9 and 14 years of age. That’s about four years younger than it was 100 years ago. The reasons are many. Regardless of why, the result is a shrunken childhood. By 5th grade, our kids are face-to-face with myriad adult issues of serious gravity.

Our clinical team discusses these implications regularly. What is the impact of the adult world on kiddos barely old enough to process complexity beyond Pokémon character strength? Do 11-year-olds have the coping skills to make relationship decisions while their bodies are already releasing egg and sperm cells?

While we acknowledge the reality that enters our offices each day, we share a lack of preparedness for the consequences of shrunken childhood. We are adjusting our clinical methods regularly to accommodate rapid maturation. Importantly, we are also endeavoring not to.

We understand that children need to stay children as long as they possibly can. We value the developmental wisdom of slowing down and savoring the moment. At any given stage, there is a narrative that explains all behavior and a platform for the next stage of growth. The key is to discern the unique moment of each child’s stage of development, why they are there, and how to prepare for what is likely to unfold next.

It doesn’t matter whether your 5th grader has underarm hair yet. What matters is that we – as parents, educators, and caregivers – read the moment. Tap the brakes.

About the Author

Steve Ritter, LCSW is the Founder and Executive Director of Elmhurst Counseling. He has served as a teacher, author, consultant, human resources director, health care administrator, and licensed clinical social worker since 1977. A fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, Steve has provided coaching, therapy and team development services to thriving schools, businesses and organizations.