What Does It Mean to Be 13?

What's on their minds? TIME takes an inside look at an age of mystery and challenge

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It's tricky even to talk about teenagers before 1941, when the term is believed to have first appeared in print (in an article in Popular Science Monthly). Our notions of childhood are relatively recent innovations, and when parents lament that today's children "grow up too fast," it is worth asking "Compared with when?" For centuries, children were valued more for their economic than emotional contribution to family life. As late as 1708 in Britain, a child of 7 could be hanged for stealing, and some of the most dangerous factory jobs could be performed only by children because of their size. The whole idea of adolescence as a period of turmoil and rebellion, historians note, could take root only once children were safe from the fields and factories and were growing up in a sheltered setting.

A childhood spent at school and play, while a modern idea, used to end more abruptly than it does now. The biggest year for teenage births in U.S. history was 1957--not because of some epidemic of premarital sex but because the median age for marriage was 20, and many brides were teenagers. A 13-year-old leafing through the pages of Seventeen magazine in the mid-1950s would have been paging through ads for furniture because she reasonably expected to be married and starting a family within a few years. So while today's 13-year-olds are exposed to "adult" images earlier, they often delay actual adult experiences and responsibilities until much later than their parents and grandparents did.

It is encoded somewhere deep in the parental psyche to worry in whole new ways about kids of this age and wonder if their moral moorings will protect them from gusting temptation. That may be especially true for today's highly "parented" 13-year-olds, whose own moms and dads grew up largely ignorant of car seats, bike helmets, antibacterial soaps and childproof locks and who certainly misbehaved in far greater numbers than today's teens. Today's 13-year-olds are less likely to smoke, drink, do drugs, get pregnant, commit a crime or drop out of school than those of their parents' generation in the 1970s. The birthrate for girls under 14 has been cut in half since 1953. But that record does not prevent every new generation of parents from fearing the worst. "We seem to have moved, without skipping a beat, from blaming our parents for the ills of society to blaming our children," observes Thomas Hine, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. "We want them to embody virtues we only rarely practice. We want them to eschew habits we've never managed to break."

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