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I don't understand what this expression means:

Little adults are the children that parents describe as 'eight going on forty-eight'.

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It means the children act very mature for their age, or else they are maturing very quickly.

If my child just turned 8 last month, I might say:

Natalie is 8 now.

Or if she turned 8 eleven months ago, I might say:

Natalie is 8 going on 9.

which implies she's almost 9.

So, when a parent says something like:

Natalie is 8 going on 16.

That means something along the lines of: "Natalie is currently 8, but sometimes it seems like she'll be getting her driver's license any time now."

Or:

Natalie is 8 going on 28.

means: "Natalie is only 8, but oftentimes she acts much like an adult."

The expression is meant to be playful and humorous.

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3  
As a footnote, you can do this in reverse, too. If someone is "50 going on 30," that means they look or act young for their age. I think most 50-year-olds would consider "50 going on 30" to be complimentary, but "50 going on 15" could mean they are immature, and might be regarded more as an insult than a compliment. I found an interesting usage of this construct on a message board: I feel like I'm 50 going on 30 and she's 45 going on 60. Hopefully the English learner can get the gist of what's going on there. – J.R. Jan 6 at 10:05
    
"The problem with my dad is that he's 40, looks like he's 30, talks like he's 20, and acts like he's 10." retrojunk.com/content/child/quote/page/622/… – kevin cline Jan 6 at 19:09
2  
Not always positive. Many times it's used to say that they are trying to grow up too fast, date, wear makeup, do more mature things. – AbraCadaver Jan 6 at 19:54

This means that a child acts as responsible and mature as an adult in many ways. Thus the age comparison, an eight-year-old child acting like a forty-eight-year-old adult. That is why these children are also called "little adults" in your quote.

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... or seems far too cynical and world-weary for her/his age. – Stan Rogers Jan 6 at 22:33

The most popular usage that I've heard is "my child is 5 going on 13". Which usually means the child is young but full of attitude as a teenager might be. I.e. the child challenges the parent's authority and intellect, and may lack respect sometimes.

This is a less playful usage most times, but meant to be somewhat humerous. It's also meant to invoke a little sympathy for the parent.

"8 going on 48" usually is used when the child has some well defined adult habits. I would say that about a child that watches the evening news, or scolds their parents about their eating habits.

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