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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AMANDA MARSALIS FOR TIME

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Each generation writes its own story. Considering the average age at which people have kids, the parents of today's 13-year-olds were typically 13 around 1978, their grandparents that age around 1953. That year the median household income was $3,733 (about $27,000 in today's dollars), the average family home was a modest 1,100 sq. ft., and just 22% of married women worked outside the home. The new toys of choice were Slinkys and Silly Putty. By 1978, average income was $15,064 (about $45,000 today), the average family home was 1,755 sq. ft., and 62% of mothers with children ages 6 to 17 were in the work force. The hot toys: Star Wars action figures and the Atari 2600. Today, while real household income hasn't expanded (it's $43,318), houses have--to an average 2,340 sq. ft.--and 70% of mothers living with children ages 6 to 17 are in the workplace. It speaks to both the technical advantages and the discretionary spending of 13-year-olds that today required gear ranges from iPods to PlayStations to Xboxes ... and a deck of cards, as poker takes over middle school.

Parents are worried about kids growing up faster, and that is physiologically true: 13-year-olds are more mature physically than they were a generation ago. From 1963 to the early 1990s, the age at which a girl got her first period dropped by about one month every decade, to 12.1 years for black girls and 12.6 years for whites. While that may not sound like a lot, says Marcia Herman-Giddens of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been studying the onset of puberty in American children for more than a decade, "there's no evidence that the age of menses has stopped falling. When will it stop? When girls are 9?" There is no consensus about the cause: some scientists blame exposure to certain plastics and insecticides, which degrade into substances with estrogen-related physiological effects. Diets high in meat and protein are associated with earlier puberty. As for boys, Herman-Giddens notes that they are reaching their adult heights at younger ages, which suggests that they too are maturing earlier.

Meanwhile, teens are growing up in a culture that sexualizes children and immerses them in adult images. In 1953 the song that held the top spot on Billboard's chart for 10 weeks was Percy Faith and his Orchestra's Song from Moulin Rouge: "Whenever we kiss/ I worry and wonder/ Your lips may be near/ But where is your heart?" One of this year's top singles, by 50 Cent, is Candy Shop, which sounds innocent enough until you actually listen to it: "I take you to the candy shop/ I'll let you lick the lollipop/ Go 'head girl, don't you stop/ Keep goin' til you hit the spot."

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