Not Allowed to Grow Up
"To prolong the run of the series, I was secretly given anti-growth hormones"
—Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons, "Behind The Laughter"
AKA "perpetual childhood." This is a fortunately now-Forgotten Trope from and specific to the early days of live-action television, implicit in many Situation Comedies that focused on the standard American Nuclear Family of father, mother and 2.4 children. In it, the Situation necessary for the Comedy to exist was so rigidly defined that (in an extreme case of Status Quo Is God) the children could not be allowed to grow up, lest the program dynamic change unrecognizably.
In most cases, this was relatively benign — the lifespan of the programs and the aging of their younger stars rarely impacted each other. (And in shows where Dawson Casting was already in play, it only meant that characters who had started out looking too old for their alleged ages just got even older.) But when actual children of the appropriate ages were cast in a show that became a Long Runner, the best-case result would be a disturbing cognitive dissonance when a child character acted substantially younger than he or she appeared.
And in the worst case, two could intersect with tragic and destructive effects — for the performer. The prime example of this would be Anissa Jones, "Buffy" on Family Affair (CBS, 1966 to 1971), who was forced to play — and to be — an eight-year-old child all the way into her teens. Her death by drug overdose not long after the series ended was blamed on — and ultimately began the process of discrediting and killing — this trope. Most live-action shows since the early seventies have allowed their child characters to mature naturally (with the silver lining that it provided new story material for the characters as they grew into teenagers).
It may seem like grossly ignoring common sense to insist that young performers not grow up, and one could wonder why anyone would even consider it. One must think of the context, though. Earlier entertainment media — comic strips, Radio, and Movies — relied on the same type of humor year after year, in which the children (if any) never aged. Early television writers failed (or actively refused) to realize the need to adapt to physically maturing characters; even in radio, a person could do the same voice for years (witness Fanny Brice playing Baby Snooks for decades), or a new performer could be inserted with little problem. And then there was the innate conservatism one can always find in the production staff of a successful show -- "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". If a program is raking in ratings and bucks with an 8-year-old in a key role, few if any members of the writing staff are going to risk that by suggesting they be allowed a ninth birthday party. There was also no small amount of explicit Viewers are Morons in play, with claims that child characters growing up would somehow "confuse" viewers, who were clearly unfamiliar with such unnatural behaviors.
Fortunately, in the modern era, production staffs are not nearly as hidebound and are somewhat more in touch with reality.
See Suppressed Mammaries, which was a typical tactic for denying the obvious with growing girls in live action shows. Contrast with Plot-Relevant Age-Up, Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, She's All Grown Up. Contrast Contractual Purity, where the actor did grow up and move on to adult roles and adult off-screen behavior, but their fans still expect them to be kids. Where young performers are concerned, it is the diametric opposite of Character Aged with the Actor.
Not to be confused with Really Seven Hundred Years Old or Not Growing Up Sucks, which are about characters who are somehow unable to age when the rest of the cast does, for in-story reasons. Nor is it to be confused with Comic Book Time, in which no one in a franchise ever ages. (Most misuses of this trope are really cases of Comic Book Time.) Nor is it to be confused with Not Allowed to Grow Old, where after a Time Skip young characters may have grown older, but the adults remain exactly the same.
Please note that this trope is specific to Live Action Television. We don't need a case-by-case listing of comic book, literary or animated characters who don't age, even if the examples are Averted, Lampshaded or played with -- that's pretty obviously People Sit on Chairs territory when it's not just Comic Book Time. In-Universe examples, though, are welcome. Voice acting is also exempt -- Agnes, Edith and Margo of the Despicable Me films may not be growing up, but no one is forcing their voice actresses to dress and act their characters' ages in public.
It's also specific to the Golden Age of Television and just a bit past it. Please limit entries on aversions to programs from before about 1972. After Family Affair aversions were the norm. (At least in American television. It may be different elsewhere, and we will trust in the judgment of our tropers when it becomes relevant.)
And finally, although we shouldn't have to say it, it's specific to human characters played by human children. Even though it's a live action show, Baby Bop of Barney and Friends being three years old for a few decades now is not an example of this trope -- she's a freaking costume, people, it may not even be the same performer under there any two shows in a row. And adding an Aversion entry here or on the page of a Former Child Star because they grew up nicely is very much a misuse.
Live Action TV
- As noted (and pictured) above: Anissa Jones as Buffy from Family Affair. The program survived long enough for her to enter puberty, but the producers and writers insisted that her character — and her public image — had to remain an eight year old child. In addition to her performances on the program, Anissa was contractually obligated to make promotional appearances with her breasts bound, her hair in Girlish Pigtails, and clutching the Mrs. Beasley doll even as she grew into her teens. The psychological damage thus inflicted is believed by many to have contributed to her death by drug overdose just a few years after the series ended.
- From the same era, Dawn Lyn as Dodie Douglas in My Three Sons was cast as a six-year-old and continued to play a six-year-old until she was nearly ten. While not nearly as extreme as Anissa Jones' case, it still resulted in some visual dissonance when she was costumed in outfits almost more appropriate to a toddler than her real age.
- The trope still affects some contemporary "teen dramas", forcing characters to remain teenaged and in high school for ridiculous periods of time, even as their actors age into and through their twenties. See also Dawson Casting.
- Emmanuel Lewis, the star of Webster was twelve when he started playing the title role and seventeen when the show ended. His character aged only three years during the show's six-year run, from age five to eight.
- Similarly, Gary Coleman's character Arnold on Diff'rent Strokes aged much slower than the rest of the cast. Coleman's kidney disorder meant that the actor never grew above 4' 8.
- The producers of Malcolm in the Middle were quite concerned about Frankie Muniz growing up, to the point where they filmed as many episodes as humanly possible in a very short period of time and then showed them on a regular schedule, so that Malcolm would appear to age more slowly. They are also preparing an animated version of Malcolm in the Middle that appears to be designed to avoid the characters' aging.
- Later seasons, however, avert this to some degree; you can see Malcolm graduating from high school, applying for colleges, and Francis gets married.
- SCTV featured a bittersweet parody: Martin Short portrayed a (former) child actor who had been in the same role for thirty years with the character on the show never aging, even though the actor did.
- Lost removed Walt from on-screen appearances for two seasons when the actor playing him began to age more visibly, but brought him back once the progress of puberty had slowed somewhat. See Put on a Bus.
- Though it was for different reasons than most shows. Where most shows that do this hold to a nebulous frozen time frame, Lost was on a strict timeline with the first four seasons covering a span of roughly 100 days during which Walt's puberty would have been implausible. He returned when the show's timeline jumped forward a few years catching up with his age.
- During its short tenure, Century City explored two aspects of this trope: first, a child actor suing his parents over the right to take growth suppressant hormones to continue his acting career, and second, an elderly member of a Backstreet Boys-esque boy band suing his former band over a contractual dispute that forces all members to take gene therapy and other surgery to keep them perpetually boi-ish. Incidentally, both cases averted this trope: the child actor was convinced not to take the pills through an appeal to the wonders of growing up, and the boy band case was dropped after one of the members who went through the procedure died of old age.
- LazyTown provides a rare modern live action example. Julianna Rose Mauriello was 13 when she took the role of 8-year-old Stephanie, and was relatively believable as that age. She was 15 when the second season was shot, and is clearly a young woman rather than a little girl in those episodes (she doesn't even appear to have bound breasts, at least not consistently), yet no narrative time appears to have passed, and in one episode she is shown to be in the same grade school class as her young puppet friends. Mauriello was a month from 17 when the first season of LazyTown Extra was shot, suggesting at the time that the production team was willing to let her play an 8-year-old all the way into her twenties.
- When the show resumed production in 2013 after six-year hiatus, Chloe Lourenco Lang took over the role of Stephanie, essentially resetting her back to an 8-year-old played by a 13-year-old.
- After Punky Brewster moved from NBC, Soleil Moon Frye started developing early and went through a massive growth spurt. At first, producers dealt with the situation by binding her breasts while still playing the character off as, physically, a prepubescent child. When the premise became too unbelievable, Punky was finally allowed to have her puberty. The first episode that admitted Punky was growing up begins with Punky marching in on her caretaker at breakfast and announcing proudly "Henry, guess what? I'm getting boobs."
- Made even more obvious by the fact that Soleil Moon Frye would eventually have to have breast reduction surgery at 16 because of gigantomastia.
- Leave It to Beaver generally averted this trope, though Beaver aged more slowly than the actor portraying him did, especially later on. Still, it had an effect -- many plots of the later seasons of Leave It to Beaver had the title character getting involved in similar troublesome situations as the ones he got caught in as an eight-year old, causing the character's Flanderization into almost an idiot. (Case in point: "Beaver The Bunny". Would have been better in the second or third season instead of fifth.) Despite this, in the series finale he is explicitly stated to be entering high school; Jerry Mathers was, at the time, a fairly reasonable 15 years old.
- Appears for reasons unknown on Rome with Vorena the Younger and little Lucius. Vorena is at least eight years old when she first appears in the second episode, and Lucius is an infant. When the series ends roughly 20 years later Vorena is still played by the same actress and Lucius seems to be no older than five or six. Especially odd considering the fact that Octavian ages from twelve in the pilot to being in his thirties when the show ends, and Caesarion (who isn't even born until Lucius is around four years old) shows up being somewhere around ten years old in the last episodes.
- Since they editors stated that they 'compressed the timeline of events' somewhat (i. e. didn't overly worry about historical accuracy), Octavian may be younger at the end of the series than he was when he actually came into power.
- Inverted by long-running show 7th Heaven, in which seven-year-old Mackenzie Rosman was cast as five-year-old Ruthie Camden. By the very end of season 11, she'd matured so quickly that the character had been aged up to 18—actually skipping over 2 years somewhere along the line.
- Parodied in an episode of You Can't Do That on Television where the kids found out the network was secretly feeding them shrinking hormone to keep them from looking older.
- While most of the kids on The Brady Bunch were allowed to age with their actors, the character of Cindy was forced to continue to wear her hair in pigtails far beyond what is normal for her age. Possibly this was done so as not to change the theme song, although technically her hair was braided, not curled in later seasons. Then again, she was kept in little-girl dresses and acting young until she was actually older than Marcia was at the start of the series.
- Subverted in Ghostwriter. When Mayteana Morales hit her growth spurt, Gaby's personality changed accordingly, but during the (short-lived) third season, Morales was replaced by Melissa Gonzalez, and Gaby reverted to her former personality.
- Disney tried to enforce this on the Mickey Mouse Club via Suppressed Mammaries; The female Mouseketeers resorted to subversion (slicing the hated "foundation garments" with razor blades) when their protests proved ineffective.
- In a similarly drastic move, the producers of the show The Adventures of Shirley Holmes actually cancelled the show after their young cast underwent growth spurts.
- The entire cast of That 70s Show. Eric turned 17 in the second episode (despite telling Red that he was 17 in the pilot). He then turns 18 in the third episode of season six.
- Round the Twist starts in 1989, and finishes in 2000. The three Twist kids more or less stay the same - the two twins manage to de-age from 14 to thirteen, and Bronson is still in the same primary school class. To be fair, this is because the series was rebooted twice - first in 1992 (for one season) then in 1999 (for two seasons).
- Averted with Mark on The Rifleman, surprisingly for the day. He is 11 at the beginning of the series and 15 at the end, allowed to age naturally.
- Forced on the producers of How I Met Your Mother because of the expected length of the show's run compared to the Framing Device that it's all being told to the narrator's children in a much shorter period of time. The production team solved the dilemma by using Stock Footage of the children -- usually the same second-season shot, but also filming a Reaction Shot during season two for use when the Mother was finally encountered.
- Terminally averted with Sophia in The Walking Dead. She is lost in season 2, and is found to have turned into a zombie and killed at the midseason finale. You can tell the actress, who is in her early teens, had grown considerably in the hiatus between the two seasons and would probably have been progressing faster than the scant weeks which were supposed to be passing could account for.
- The Patty Duke Show: Paul O'Keefe as Patty's little brother Ross experiences a quite visible growth spurt toward the end of the series, but the character is still written the same way.
- Used in-story in Gypsy, where vaudeville child stars June and Louise have their real ages kept secret by their mother. Louise can't be sure how old she really is, having had tenth birthday parties several years in a row. (Given that Gypsy is a biography, and Mama Rose allegedly was that bad, this may also be a case of Truth in Television.)
- This concept is parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, where in a "documentary" about the show featuring the cast as Animated Actors, Lisa complains how she was forced to take anti-growth hormones in order to prolong the series. Homer dismisses the idea, noting, "That's ridiculous. How could I even get all five necessary drops into her cereal? ...What?"
- Film studios had a particular aversion to child stars growing up to a large extent — how to manage a smooth upshift from "adorable child star" to "hawt teen star" wasn't really figured out until The Seventies. The most famous example was Judy Garland, who in The Wizard of Oz had her breasts strapped down so Dorothy Gale would be more childlike. Since most people haven't read the book(s), most modern viewers think Dorothy's supposed to be a teenager.
- Speaking of Shirley Temple, she was cast as an eight-year-old until she was well into her teens. In fact, it was only once she got married (at age seventeen, to a man who turned out to be a violently abusive Gold Digger) that Louis B. Mayer allowed her to appear in adult roles. She left show business completely after divorcing the Gold Digger and escaping Mayer's slimy clutches. Her last job? America's last Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
- Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis were also cast because they were incapable of "growing up", due to their medical conditions. The former didn't have a happy ending.
- June Havoc got this treatment from her mother, as seen in Gypsy.
- Averted, to the surprise of many, by Disney with Annette Funicello, on the original Mickey Mouse Club.
- Reluctantly. Before they broke down and accepted it, they pulled many stunts to cover her chest. One method was positioning shorter Mousketeers in front of her, while another involved body doubles and tight closeups on her face. They probably would have canned her if it wasn't for her popularity.
- Actually actress Anissa Jones, at ages 8 and 12 respectively.