- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

My friend Jen knows how to get a rise out of me. All she has to do is send an e-mail with a link to a news story about tweens.

Last week, she found an article about the new trend among tween girls to have professional hair treatments such as highlights, lowlights, chemical straighteners and permanent curls. Unlike the home treatments we may have had our moms do for us when we were teens, pre-teenagers today get their moms to plunk down upward of $45 for a salon visit to get streaks of color not found in nature.

According to the salon owner quoted in the article, girls as young as 6 sometimes come in for color streaks in their hair, though she admitted “8 to 12 is more the norm.” Later in the story, the truth behind this style trend revealed itself: Tweens are a powerful demographic spending group, so businesses such as hair salons are finding ways to get a piece of the tween pie.

The tweening of America makes me crazy, and not just because I have a 10-year-old daughter who sings pop songs in the bathroom and has a crush on current “American Idol” teen heartthrob David Archuleta.

I understand stereotypical tween girl obsessions — lip gloss, cute shoes, spiral notebooks with pictures of Disney’s boy band the Jonas Brothers — because those sorts of things are generally harmless and typical for a fifth-grader.

What bugs me about teenhood as a bona fide life phase is it’s just phony. It was created by marketers to tap the vast pile of money to which tweens — those between the ages of 8 and 12 who formerly were known as “children” — have direct access or at least direct influence.

Thanks to marketers, our children now experience something called “age compression” or KGOY, an acronym of the marketing trade that stands for Kids Getting Older Younger. This is the reason we see news headlines like the one I saw a year ago: “Ten is the new 15.”

That’s just what our culture needs. A bunch of pre-adolescents skipping their childhoods only to be immersed in a state of pseudo-adulthood.

It works like this: Marketers get children hooked at an early age on the idea that they will be happier and more popular if they wear certain brands and have certain things. They encourage children to beg their parents for the things they want and even supply the latest gadgets and gizmos to “alpha kids” in the neighborhood who help set trends and promote fads. To get the most bang for their advertising dollars ($15 billion in child-targeted marketing at last count) marketers use every available avenue to cross-sell to children, from TV, movies and the Internet to Happy Meal toys to your school’s annual book fair.

By the time they reach the ripe old age of 11 or 12, children are so savvy that they’re understandably less interested in “childish” things (i.e. toys). At least, that’s the opinion of one marketing guru, who claims KGOY requires new strategies to meet the tween demand for new products and services.

Thus, kiddie salons designed just for tween girls where all the shampoo smells like bubble gum and cotton candy and the highlights come in pink, purple and lime green — for “bargain” prices of less than $50.

Maybe I’m resistant to teenhood because it turns lovely little girls into hypersexualized human Bratz dolls. Or maybe I’m just a dinosaur mom — heck, I didn’t get my first blond highlights until I was 25 and could pay for them myself.

If only I were a marketer who could promote a whole new trend: KGON — Kids Getting Older Normally. There probably isn’t any money in it, so it wouldn’t take off.

Then again, while teenhood in America may be making big bucks for some folks, our children are paying the price. It’s costing them their childhoods.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. hicks@comcast.net.

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