Growing pains and gains for local preteens

Current generation of girls has more opportunities, faces very different challenges than predecessors

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Growing Up a Girl

AmberLeigh Packard eyed the competition as she made her way around the track at Alki Middle School. She had heeded her coach’s advice and paced herself, so she finished the 200-meter event strong.

For 9-year-old AmberLeigh, it was just another race. But to her grandmother’s generation, AmberLeigh’s dash toward the finish line was a victory in and of itself.

As recently as about 40 years ago, girls weren’t guaranteed the same opportunities as boys in school athletics programs. One generation ago, kids didn’t have access to the Internet, cellphones, Facebook and other technological advancements that are shaping the coming-of-age experience today.

Today’s girls are more tech savvy and more athletic than previous generations. They’re educated in schools dominated by standardized tests, then head to college and earn advanced degrees in greater numbers than their brothers. They’re often closer to their parents than mom and dad were to the grandparents, and many experts say they are more mature than girls of the past. They also face new challenges, including higher rates of obesity, the threat of cyberbullying, and highly scheduled lives that can make it hard to be spontaneous.

The Columbian is launching a two-part series looking at the growing-up experience of today’s children and early adolescents, roughly ages 8-13. This installment focuses on girls, and a future story will examine boyhood.

Some generational theorists say they’re the tail end of Generation Y, or the Millennial generation, while others place them at the beginning of a new generation, which has been called everything from Generation Z to the Homeland Generation. Whatever they’re labeled, in Clark County more than 31,000 girls ages 5-14 are growing up in a fast-changing world.

‘Digital natives’

Coming of age may be an age-old process, but those who’ve worked with children for decades say technology has magnified the experience for many pre- and early-adolescent girls.

“The same problems are out there, the same insecurities, but the avenue is so much bigger,” said Carrie Perry, a fourth-grade teacher at Marshall Elementary School who has taught in Vancouver Public Schools for 29 years.

“Kids are no longer immigrants to the digital world,” said Don Ludwig, sociology professor at Clark College. “They are natives to that world.”

At the Packards’ Salmon Creek home, AmberLeigh; her father, Randy; her mother, Lisa; and her 3-year-old sister, Brianna, all have their own computers, and that’s not uncommon. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 29 percent of youths ages 8-18 own their own laptop, up from 12 percent in 2004.

From the family’s dining room, AmberLeigh uses her laptop to log on to Facebook to play games or connect with relatives and friends from church.

Facebook sets a minimum age of 13, but younger users such as AmberLeigh are common. According to a Consumer Reports survey, 7.5 million Facebook users are younger than the site officially allows.

AmberLeigh’s parents keep careful watch on how she uses Facebook. They allowed her to sign up because of the entertainment value. She’d seen her dad playing FarmVille and wanted to join in the fun.

In addition to social media, some of AmberLeigh’s peers at Chinook Elementary School, where she just finished fourth grade, stay connected by cellphone.

AmberLeigh’s parents briefly let her have one a few years ago, then decided she was too young. Now they’re considering whether the time may be right to try again.

About two-thirds of 8- to 18-year-olds have their own cellphone, and about half of them send text messages on any given day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation study. Kids who text estimate sending an average of 118 messages a day. The 2010 Pew Internet & American Life Project reported a lower average of 50 messages sent or received a day for teens who text, but that still adds up to 18,250 texts a year.

Cellphones and the Internet have brought new attention to the old problem of bullying.

A clique that might have teased someone in a corner during recess can now send vicious text messages or splash hurtful words online for mass consumption.

“It becomes so much bigger when it’s out there for the whole world to see,” Perry said.

Yet for all the concerns adults have about cyberbullying, young girls have embraced the technology available to them.

They rely on it to stay connected with their peers 24/7, according to generational theorist Neil Howe, who has co-authored eight books on American generations, including “Generations” and “Millennials Rising.”

“The worst punishment you can give this generation is taking away their cellphone,” Howe said. “You might as well cut off their oxygen.”

As girls’ technology ownership and usage has increased, so has their media consumption. Kids spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day using media, up an hour and 19 minutes since just 1999, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation study.

In the classroom

Technology has also contributed to a shift in what kids learn at school and how they learn it.

Overall, Marshall Elementary teacher Perry feels that more is expected of kids academically now than in the past.

Clark County fourth-graders today turn to Google, not encyclopedias, to conduct research; give presentations using PowerPoint, not posters; and type, rather than handwrite, papers. The trade-off to acquiring this tech savvy is that spelling and penmanship are becoming less of a focus in the classroom, Perry said.

An era of high-stakes testing and white-collar job growth has also had profound consequences for AmberLeigh’s generation.

AmberLeigh likes school and gets good grades, but cites all the tests she takes as the hardest part of being a kid.

As a fourth-grader in Vancouver Public Schools, AmberLeigh would have taken the Measurement of Academic Progress test two or three times, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literary Skills and the Math Benchmark Assessment tests three times each, and the Measurements of Student Progress test once in the spring.

This intense focus on testing has its roots in the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, implemented statewide in 1997, and in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The mandatory testing came about as part of efforts to better measure student performance and improve education.

However, areas not included on these district- and statewide standardized assessments, such as social sciences and the arts, sometimes get short shrift because so much time in the classroom is spent preparing kids in math, reading and writing, Perry said.

The tests, which can seem to dominate the school year, shine a light on another change in AmberLeigh’s generation: Girls are doing better, academically, than boys in many regards.

Nationally, girls in elementary, middle and high school test better, on average, in reading and writing than boys, though boys outperform girls in math and science, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In high school, girls are less likely than boys to drop out. In college, females are more likely than males to earn mostly As or As and Bs.

Forty years ago, some of the nation’s most prominent universities did not admit women to their undergraduate programs. Women earned 43 percent of bachelor degrees, 40 percent of master’s degrees and 14 percent of doctorate degrees. Now, women earn about 57 percent of bachelor degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees and 52 percent of doctorate degrees.

On the go

This drive to achieve may in part explain why today’s girls seem to be growing up faster.

AmberLeigh already has her future mapped out. She wants to be a forensic scientist like Abby Sciuto, her favorite character on the CBS drama “NCIS.”

She has been Abby for Halloween, has an “NCIS” board game and made a picture of Abby the screensaver on her laptop.

AmberLeigh even created a dossier listing all of Abby’s characteristics. The profile reveals an attention to detail the “NCIS” investigation team would find impressive.

She also has her college picked out — Syracuse University in New York — selected for its forensic science program.

She did this on her own, not with coaxing from her parents.

“She does more work than she should. She likes to create all these papers and lists,” said her mother, 44-year-old substitute teacher Lisa Packard.

In addition to seeming preternaturally mature, girls today are busier, said Perry, the Marshall Elementary School fourth-grade teacher.

“They have a million different dance classes or instruments they take lessons with or sports,” she said. “Every night they’re involved with something.”

In transition

Extracurricular activities, academics and technology may vary from one generation to the next, but the preteen years have always been a seminal time of great change for girls.

“It’s about feeling your power. It’s about almost being at the mercy of forces bigger than yourself, changes your brain is going through, hormonal changes, growing up in society,” said Lauren Kessler, a University of Oregon professor who studied tween culture for her book, “My Teenage Werewolf.”

“Changing from the sweet, complacent little girl to the headstrong, independent young woman,” Kessler said. “It’s what has to happen, but still comes with growing pains for everyone involved.”

In researching her book, Kessler found that technological advances can create the illusion that the generational gap is greater than it actually is.

“Coming of age is coming of age, and finding your voice,” she said.

And many girls in Clark County buck the generational trends and find their own paths toward adolescence.

When it’s not raining, 11-year-old Shelby and 12-year-old Skylee Ramirez can be found outside in the backyard of their Camas home, playing on their swing set and trampoline, catching frogs and hanging out in their tree fort.

The Ramirez girls aren’t on social media sites, and TV time is limited to an hour a day. Their parents imposed this rule when they started spending a little too much time on the couch.

The family used to live in downtown Camas, but Shawn and Silba Ramirez wanted more of a rural experience for their two youngest daughters (they also have a 20-year-old daughter named Sadie).

The girls take their low-tech lives in stride.

This freedom is part of what makes being a kid great, said Shelby, who just finished fifth grade at Lacamas Heights Elementary School.

“A lot of times, (adults) have jobs, and they don’t get to go out and explore,” she said. “When you’re a kid, you have a lot of imagination. We get to go outside a lot.”

Girls in sports

In addition to playing on their one-acre property, the Ramirez sisters are involved in athletics. Shelby participates in gymnastics, and Skylee, who just completed sixth grade at Liberty Middle School, plays club soccer.

AmberLeigh also participates in club soccer, and she runs in track through her elementary school. Her favorite event is the long jump.

“I like jumping,” she said.

Girls today have always had as much access to sports as boys, thanks to Title IX of the Education Amendments. The 1972 law prohibited sex discrimination in any programs at schools that receive federal funding, and led to a proliferation of activities for girls through their schools.

AmberLeigh’s mother, Lisa Packard, was in elementary and middle school in the ’70s and high school in the ’80s. Sports opportunities for girls existed, but weren’t emphasized. Packard was a cheerleader in high school, and her friends who participated in athletics either did cheerleading or baton twirling.

Today, things are much different at AmberLeigh’s school. All of her friends are involved with sports. Her mother sees this as a positive change.

“I think it helps their self-esteem and, from what I’ve read, keeps them out of trouble,” Packard said.

Physical changes

Though more girls engage in sports than in past generations, those who aren’t athletic are often more sedentary than their predecessors.

With that shift, weight problems among children have become more common, “a huge change from 20, 30 years ago,” said James Heid, a physician at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center who practices family medicine.

About 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the most recent data available. Obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has more than tripled since the 1971-1974 survey.

The increasing prevalence of childhood obesity has been linked with an earlier onset of puberty, Heid said. Environmental factors might also influence the age of puberty’s onset, though that is a subject of active research, he added.

About 15 percent of 7-year-old girls and 27 percent of 8-year-old girls have started to develop breasts, according to a study appearing in the September 2010 issue of Pediatrics. These percentages are higher than those reported in studies of girls born 10-30 years ago, the article continued.

Lisa Packard said she has noticed that girls are needing deodorant at an earlier age than she recalls from when she was growing up.

The changes puberty ushers in go beyond deodorant, breast development and menstruation.

“There are a lot of hormone surges going on in young women,” Heid said. These hormones, primarily estrogen and progesterone, affect everything from girls’ moods to their complexions to their crushes.

Today’s girls may be hitting puberty before they’re mentally and emotionally ready, and they’re also facing other health challenges. Sleeping with cellphones can be disruptive to kids’ sleep, Heid said. He has seen cases of tendonitis in kids caused by persistent texting.

Heid also sees more cases of depression and learning disabilities in kids today, though whether this indicates an increase in prevalence or simply that more kids are being diagnosed is unclear.

Fewer risks

Despite these health challenges, today’s girls are safer than their predecessors in many ways. They’re more likely than previous cohorts to wear seat belts and use condoms and less likely to drink, smoke, use marijuana, attempt suicide or have sex, according to the CDC.

They’re also less violent than their parents’ generation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and more likely to get along with mom and dad than kids who came before were.

AmberLeigh and her father, who works in security for the Hilton Vancouver Washington, like playing computer games like The Sims and Spore together. She also likes playing make-believe and with Polly Pocket dolls with her sister.

“Now, parents and kids wear the same brand-name clothing, they listen to the same music, they watch the same movies,” said Howe, the generational expert and author.

Today’s kids have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, and one byproduct of that is greater trust in public agencies and the government. They view authority figures as “keeping us safe in an unsafe world,” Howe said.

Fifty-three percent of Millennials said the government should do more to solve problems, compared to 45 percent of Generation X, 43 percent of Boomers, and 39 percent of the Silent generation, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center.

Another hallmark of Millennials is optimism about the future, including their job prospects, their community and their nation, Howe said.

Forty-one percent of Millennials are satisfied with how things are going in this country, compared to 26 percent of adults ages 30 and older. Sixty-nine percent of Millennials are satisfied with their local communities. This percentage is lower than it is for Gen X but higher than for the Boomer and Silent generations.

For evidence of that youthful optimism among younger Millennials, one need look no further than future forensic scientist AmberLeigh.

She envisions a time when she has it all: a career, a husband, two kids and a dog. She also imagines a new and improved world.

“I think it’s going to be maybe a little better than it is now,” she said.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.