TOO QUICKLY, KIDS TURNED INTO ADULTS

The old expression goes, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Not anymore. Now even the young don’t get much youth.

Last week, we watched a 6-year-old Cuban boy bounced back and forth in a political Ping-Pong match. Someone — and by that I mean, some adult — put Elian Gonzalez in front of a video camera and had him plead his case for staying in America.

(Remember, this is a kid who has been showered with Disney toys since his arrival. Asking him if he wants to stay in America is like asking a puppy if it wants more treats.)

Still, when that footage found its way to the TV news — where it was seemingly rerun every 5 minutes — I actually saw experts brought in to analyze Elian’s body movements.

“When we see pauses in his speech like this one here,” one such expert expounded, pointing out certain frames of the video, “it indicates that the ideas may not be his own….”

Suddenly, it’s the Zapruder film.

Nowhere did I hear these experts debate whether making such a tape was wrong or whether TV networks should show such a tape at all.

That’s because beneath all the screaming politics of the Gonzalez case, something far more dangerous is going on in this country.

We’re blurring the line between children and adults.

It may be gone altogether.

Plot in the first grade

Last month in Sayreville, N.J., two 6-year-old boys were suspended from school because they pointed fingers at one another and went bang, bang.

Last week in Indiana, three first-grade girls were suspended for allegedly plotting to kill a classmate.

In New York, a sixth-grade boy — 11 years old — was suspended for a week because he told two girls on a playground: “Roses are red, violets are black, your chest is as flat as your back.” The boy and his parents were summoned to a hearing on potential sexual harassment charges.

In Virginia, a 17-year-old student with no discipline record was suspended 11 days when a pair of scissors fell out of her purse. Although she insisted the scissors were for cutting out newspaper articles, her teacher called security guards.

And in the Seattle area, the teenage student who fathered two children with a high school teacher — and who always said the sex was consensual — now is suing the school district for failing to protect him from her sexual advances. He wants $1 million.

All this happening on the one-year anniversary of the Columbine High School tragedy and in the shadow of a 6-year-old in Michigan who allegedly shot his classmate in the head.

Now. You tell me. Who are the adults and who are the kids?

Trying to raise prodigies

There used to be a notion in this country that certain things were for children and certain things weren’t.

As that notion blurred, as we bent the bar on movie ratings, as we lowered the bar on TV language, as we got busier in our careers and told ourselves our kids were mature enough to handle being alone, things we never would have permitted suddenly became permissible.

We sped up our kids. Made them learn faster. Tried to raise prodigies. We bragged about how much they knew at such a young age. And when we were off working, we told ourselves the video game that entranced them was a good baby-sitter, that surfing the Net was educational.

Then, when teenagers started acting like adults — everything from push-up bras to nose jobs to bringing loaded guns to class — we begrudgingly considered them adults.

And when their younger brothers and sisters began imitating them, we begrudgingly told ourselves, “Kids grow up faster these days.” So now we have a world in which we say: “Sorry, but children must understand sexual harassment. Sorry, toddlers must understand zero tolerance.”

Sorry, but a 6-year-old may have to accept his role in a political war, play his part, do his duty, even if it means losing his father.

Whatever happened to that expression, “He’s just a kid”? It lies buried beneath a pile of law books, gun clips, sex songs and violent television. We used to lament getting older because we missed the innocence of youth. Who knew that youth itself may one day be a thing of the past?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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