Precocious friends

Some children are in a hurry to grow up

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Over dinner one night, your six-year-old daughter asks, “Mom, what’s a pimp?” You nearly choke on a meatball. “Where did you hear that word?” you ask. “Jamie said it in a song he was singing at school today, and I want to know what it is.”

It’s not unlikely that your six- to eight-year-old has at least one classmate who is allowed to listen to music, watch movies or play video games that are way too old for him. Or perhaps there’s a child whose conversation or knowledge about sex or some other sensitive subject seems way beyond his years.

This is a common concern for parents, says Sara Dimerman, a Thornhill, Ont., child and family therapist and the author of Character Is the Key: How to Unlock the Best in Our Children and Ourselves. “It really does seem like children are growing up faster these days,” she says. “I see a lot more ‘adultified’ or precocious kids both in my practice and in my private life. On the one hand, I am amazed that they know so much, but on the other hand, it’s sad because sometimes kids are getting too much information before they’re really ready to handle or process it.”

While you try hard to create an age-appropriate environment for your kids, you can’t be with them 24/7. How should you handle the influence of a precocious friend in your child’s life?

Welcome questions

First, recognize that children have a certain attraction to tantalizing bits of information shared on the swing set, says Dimerman. Kids are curious and interested; they want to know about adult things, forbidden things.

That’s why it’s so important that kids know they can talk to you, no topic is off limits and you’ll try your best to answer their questions, even tough or embarrassing ones.

It’s a good sign when children are comfortable asking their parents difficult questions, says Patrick McGrath, a psychologist at IWK Health Centre and professor of psychology, paediatrics and psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “It shows you’ve done your job as a parent.”

And, Dimerman adds, “if we don’t talk to our kids about the things that are on their minds, someone else will and we run the risk that our kids will be misled or confused. That doesn’t mean kids always need long, complicated answers.” She suggests that you ask yourself what the child is really after.

What is the child really after?

Sometimes kids are seeking answers, but they may also be expressing a concern or seeking reassurance. “You can start with ‘Why do you ask?’” says Dimerman, “and then proceed from there.”

Then there is the sharing of information that you would really rather came from you, either because it’s a topic like sex, where you want to be the one to share information and your family’s values, or it’s a part of your family life. Perhaps your six-year-old has heard on the playground that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. “Parents don’t necessarily have to confirm or deny. I wouldn’t lie,” says Dimerman, “but you might start by asking, ‘What do you think? Why?”

What’s the real question?

Your child may not be asking what you think he’s asking. McGrath recounts the old story of the child who asked, “Where did I come from?” The parent goes into a big long explanation of sex, conception and birth. Then the child says, “Sally came from Hamilton, and I was just wondering where I came from.”

Don’t stonewall by saying, “I’ll tell you about that when you’re ready.” Do your best to answer the question. And resist the urge to rush to judgment: “Jamie has no business talking about those things, and you certainly shouldn’t be repeating them.”

“If a child is asking a question — no matter how taken aback you are by it — he deserves an honest answer,” advises Dimerman.

Use the influence you have: While you can’t oversee every moment of your child’s life, you do have some say in terms of coordinating playdates and encouraging positive relationships.

“It rarely works to forbid a friendship,” says Dimerman. “If your child is really attracted to another and you’re privy to an inappropriate comment, you should say something like ‘What do you think about what Miranda said?’ That way you’re encouraging your child to think about the things her friend has said.”

McGrath adds: “We can tell kids that if they feel uncomfortable about something another kid is saying, they can say so.” But children may need their parents to model the words for them: “That movie sounds scary and I don’t want you to tell me about it.” Role-playing can be helpful because it gives kids a chance to practise what they’ll say.

Dimerman says parents might also encourage their kids to move out of range of an inappropriate conversation without saying anything. “That’s a great way to help kids learn to trust their intuition and react appropriately in an uncomfortable situation.’”

Finally, if you have real concerns that your child’s friend’s knowledge suggests abuse or neglect, you need to talk to someone. “Extremely advanced knowledge about sexual behaviour is a red flag,” says Dimerman. A good place to start might be a conversation with the classroom teacher. In most provinces, legislation requires that concerns about a child’s safety be reported to authorities.