A Problematic Phrase with Upsetting Implications
Chances are, you’ve heard an adult exclaim: “Kids grow up so fast!” or, “They’re growing up too fast!” while gazing at a child who suddenly seems much taller than they remembered. You might have even heard the version (directed at the kiddo), “Stop growing! You’re getting too big!” especially when elementary school aged kids go through growth spurts. How does this make you feel?
Me? These utterances punch me in the gut every time. Why? As a parent and teacher, I’d like to explain the reasons that you might want to think twice about saying something like “kids grow up too fast” the next time you encounter a young child gaining on you in height and advancing in years.
1. It implies that you haven’t been around.
The most frequent times I hear the phrase, “That kid is growing up too fast!” it is being said by an adult who hasn’t been face to face with this child in months, or even years… and sometimes that can be downright sad.
I got the idea to write this article on the day a dear friend uttered the words, “Your son is growing up too fast!” upon seeing his photo. In that moment, I realized that I deeply missed my friend’s weekly visits since she’d moved away. Back in the days when she lived close by and watched my guy evolve from week to week, there was joy and connection. With the new distance, however, there suddenly arose the shock of my son’s physical changes across the months.
Yes, humans grow, develop, and change, and the longer you’re away from another person, the more obvious the changes are. However, that doesn’t mean they’re aging “too fast” — it just means that doing everything we can to spend more time with them, even video calls, makes it less of a shock how they’re changing. In the case of my friend, I began sending more frequent photos, arranging Facetime calls.
(Note: Thank you to the reader who wrote to emphasize that global circumstances can sometimes make it IMPOSSIBLE for people to see loved ones in the way that they yearn to. This is a heartbreaking and real facet of this “grow up so fast” discussion that underscores the pain so often behind these words. I’ll add to this point in #5.)
2. It suggests you haven’t been paying attention.
When the phrase “they’re growing up too fast” is said by people who ARE around the child on a more frequent basis, that begs a whole other set of questions. Let’s back up to look at this phenomenon in a different context.
The best advice I got before my wedding day was to take my time walking down the aisle, and look everyone directly in the face — really paying attention. The advice continued: keep that same intentionality as much as possible during the event itself. If you don’t do this willful mindfulness, they explained, the wedding will zip by in a blur. However, if you take the time to really absorb and appreciate what is happening every step of the way (so many loved ones gathered together!) the evening will stretch, long and vivid, in your consciousness.
It’s the same thing with children. When we take the time to frequently pause and appreciate what they think, look, and act like on a daily basis, this “too fast” business isn’t such an issue. Change happens incrementally, so paying attention makes it a flow of stacking pieces rather than a shock.
3. It devalues the massive DAILY work of raising children.
As a corollary to #2, the majority people who have been doing the day in and day out work of feeding, washing, and loving children would not call it “fast.” When my daughter was 6 months old and still not sleeping, a man I hardly knew said to me, “Enjoy every second — they grow up so fast!”
I couldn’t help but wonder: Was HE the one in his family who was getting up every three hours for months on end? Was HE the one who was at the doctor over and over for the pain of nursing gone awry? Seemed unlikely. There is so much to be thankful for, being a parent, but being chided that you’re not enjoying sleep deprivation enough is not one of them.
4. It breeds tragic feelings of helplessness.
In the heartbreaking situation where someone literally CANNOT be in person with the child that is growing without them there, the pain is unimaginable. In that case, the statement being said is, “I wish so much I could be there for every minute, but I can’t! I love you deeply, and will be there the first moment it becomes possible.”
I want to emphasize, however, that so many times people say kids are “growing up too fast,” they are actually right there with them… sometimes even living with them. There may be many reasons for uttering this, despite being there, one of which might be a preference for a certain stage.
Here’s the thing, though: People grow. They just do. While it’s worthwhile to honor our true feelings — including maybe missing holding a baby sometimes — I don’t want to live a life in which I’m wishing for a reality that doesn’t and can’t exist. I want to appreciate my children exactly as they are, because if I don’t…
5. It subverts the important reality that EVERY phase is important.
As someone who’s now been a parent to ages 0-7, a teacher for ages 8-22, and a human for ages 0-40, I’m confident that every single year of human life is wonderful and beautiful in its own way — AND has its own challenges. (Yes, I’m even talking about those awkward liminal ages like middle school.)
For sure, there are some phases which are better for some people than others (ex: certain friends loved having little babies, while others found it extremely challenging), phrases like “growing up too fast” put a clear and frankly insulting value judgement on younger kids being better than older ones. Let’s unpack that.
6. It implies that children SHOULD be smaller, weaker, and not independent.
The power dynamic implicit in an adult saying someone is “growing up TOO fast” is that it’s preferable when the young person is physically, mentally, and societally in a more diminutive state. It reads as power hoarding: “I would rather you be a cute little thing I can hold in one arm, rather than you growing into your own fully actualized person.”
This may seem like an overly dramatic or sensitive interpretation of a common phrase, but explain, then, why the “TOO” is in that phrase. The young person’s growth is “too fast” for WHAT, exactly? If it’s not about the adult retaining power, here’s another possibility: equally upsetting, but in a different extreme.
7. It forces thoughts of decline and mortality.
Another way to finish the sentence, “growing up too fast” is to say, “hurtling towards our inevitable demise.” Sorry, but that’s just the door you open when you talk about time passing fast. That’s not a very pleasant thing to bring up. So what are alternatives?
Preferable Phrases to Use, with Why:
The key in FIXING the problematic phrases “growing up so fast” or “getting too big” or “stop growing” is to say something instead which emphasizes the following elements:
- All humans grow and develop, and every phase is important.
- We WANT other humans to evolve into more powerful and self-actualized beings.
- Being away from someone makes changes in them more obvious when you reunite.
Given this framework, here are possible phrases you could try.
A. “I love how they’re growing!”
This phrase can make parents and guardians feel really good, because it affirms that they are doing a hearty job supporting their children’s development, both physically and mentally. It embraces the positive facets of phases changing and time passing.
B. “It’s great how tall and strong you’re getting.”
Saying something like this is nice because it is a power-sharing gesture. The adult is opening the door to the future that the child will someday be as tall and strong as them, and is welcoming that future. “Strong” is also an adjective which is too rarely used with girls.
C. “I haven’t seen them in so long, and it’s fantastic to see how they’re coming into their own!”
An utterance like this takes open-eyed responsibility for not having been face-to-face with the child for an amount of time which made their physical changes noticeable. Rather than expressing the shock that can come from this visual change, however, this phrase emphasizes the joy of seeing how humans develop and blossom over time.
D. [Insert specific positive observation or question here.]
Best of all is a statement which notices a wonderful detail, or asks a question to get to know the child exactly as they are, right now. In an example of the former and latter together would be: “It’s awesome to see you after all these months! I’m guessing from your shirt that you’re now into dinosaurs? Can you tell me more about that?”
For me personally, on the rare occasion that I share a photo of myself with my children on social media, I loooove receiving specific positive observations. For example, “Your daughter’s smile is just like yours!” or, “Your son looks so happy, cuddled up in your arms.” Just like with teacher gifts, if you’re not sure what kind of words of affirmation a person wants, it’s worth an ask.
Closing Thoughts on Growing Up
Writing this article has been on my mind for a LONG time, and my kids are finally old enough to play quietly together long enough for me to tap out the words and hit “Publish.” Hooray for new phases and growth!
Our language and thinking are always evolving (remember our learning about microaggressions, the term “good schools,” and dark metaphors), and sometimes it’s worthwhile to step back and assess: What is the impact of this casual phrase I’m uttering on the people who are listening? Some people may not mind, but if you’re unsure, consider either asking to check in about how the words are landing, or trying a new phrase instead.
Now I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Are these “Growing up so fast” phrases ones you’ve heard or used? How do they land for YOU? Do share.
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English from Boston who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs AroundTheWorld L.com Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following @WorldLillie on social media!