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While at the mall today, I couldn’t help but notice the number of young teens/preteens about, donning perfectly contoured makeup, each with slim bodies to fit perfectly into less than age-appropriate fashion.

I also overheard a few of them enthusiastically reference their “life experiences” to discuss at length their dating troubles to each other. At that age, the only boy in my life was Harry Potter.

“Why do 14-year-olds today look/act older than me?” I inquired to my sister as we exited Target.

As kids, we wanted to graduate into adulthood quickly for some stupid reason. That’s probably the deep, underlying reason why girls wear mom’s heels and lipstick at age five, and dad teaches son how to shave an entire decade before it will be necessary.

I’ve said it, you’ve probably said it, and the omnipotent “they” have definitely said it: things were easier when we were kids—no fear of bills, being incompetent at a job, rejection, getting fat, or the thought of a final exam defining your intelligence as a whole.

But it’s also the simplicity of childlike thinking that I miss.

Making friends was so easy, for instance—if we occupied the same sandbox, we were friends. No questions asked, and gender didn’t even seem relevant back then.

Unfortunately as we get older, our friend circles tend to decrease while our criteria for allowing certain people into our circles increases, whether you want to admit it or not.

Do they share my same political views? Music preferences? Did he/she ever date my ex? Are they interesting enough to keep me entertained? Will he/she be a lot of work to get through to?

I’ve seen this type of questioning put a damper on people’s friendship circles—I’ve been both a target of it, and as much as I hate to say it, have probably been guilty of using this internal Q&A lest I “waste” my energy on certain people.

One reason why I’m not super great at making female friends is fear of not living up to some of the expectations that may or may not even be there.

In really vicious circles, which I’m glad I’ve been able to avoid, friends might try to one-up each other with back-handed compliments, “helpful” advice or good old-fashioned backstabbing.

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(The accuracy, though!)

And then we move on from friendships to dating/relationships, which these days feel less like an innocent chase and more like being thrown into the gladiators’ ring.

Whoever lets their guard down first loses. Whoever dashes the other one’s hopes first is the winner. After all, what’s the fun if no one gets hurt? People are recyclable.

A child might say, “Why would you want to hurt your friends?”

A good question. A valid question—why indeed. A child understands that isn’t right, but somehow as we “mature,” morals become more convoluted—they’re more like guidelines and less like cut-and-dry rules.

In Sunday school, we’re taught that stealing, talking badly about others, lying and cheating are no-no’s because they can hurt other people. Which is bad, obviously.

I feel like children understand this better than most adults. They were ingrained into us through stories like “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

Yet as the years go by, adults start to excuse their behavior—shoplifting from a major chain store like Walmart “isn’t so bad” because it’s a big enough business that won’t be too economically impacted, a little gossip is perfectly innocent, lying about work experience on a resume is OK because we need the job, and cheating on a homework assignment is fine because “everyone does it.”

I would really like to figure out where it all went wrong if [most] kids are taught right from wrong from the start.

Sometimes, I don’t even know if right and wrong is as simple as true or false questions. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen how cutting corners does work for some people, and how selfishness and unnecessarily aggressive behavior gets people what and whom they want. And though I’m not quite sure how they’ve managed to do it, I’ve seen these same people convince the rest of us that our worth is based on their impressions of us, true or not.

Yesterday, I went to the park shortly before dusk. I observed as the kids there scampered across the playground and organize rolling-down-the-hill contests with their fellow playmates.

As I left the area, the image of a onesie-d tyke army-crawling towards his father stayed in my mind. Don’t ever think you won’t need him however old you are, little one.

Thinking back on the Target teens and tweens from today, I’m a little saddened. They’re growing up too fast, but perhaps there’s hope—maybe the negative aspects of growing up I outlined above won’t go beyond the lipstick and contoured eyebrows for a few more years.