No, not that middle-age, which follows “adult”, and was identified long ago as one of life’s significant passages. More recently, attention is being given to the middle-age of childhood, considered to be from about age six to the beginning of the teen years. Natalie Angier, in a December 26, 2011 New York Times story, reports on findings from neuroscience and evolutionary biology that describe middle childhood as a time of great cognitive creativity and ambition.
At first it seems to parents as though bottles, diapers and cribs will be the story of life forever. But, amazingly, one big step soon follows another and life turns into sippy cups, potties and real beds – which children then get out of just when you hope they are asleep. The first five years embody so many transformational changes: the dependent infant begins to walk, run, and climb; language is acquired making possible self-expression, such as the big NO!; motor development enables children to use utensils, feed and dress themselves, tie shoelaces and button the buttons.
For parents, children’s acquisition of self-help skills is a boon. Yet, each new step often can mean more work for mom – and dad. Mastery leads to children wanting to do everything themselves – even things they really are not quite able to do, or you may not want them to do. That often takes longer than doing it for them. And emerging autonomy and declarations of independence can lead to defiance, requiring diplomatic skills to avoid power struggles.
In the early years, undeveloped impulse control and mastery of emotions, mean feelings and wishes are expressed through behavior such as hitting, throwing and temper tantrums. Parents may try to reason with children to no avail. Young children for the most part want what they want when they want it. It is the parents’ wishes that seem irrational. Why go to bed when it’s more fun to play? Why not ice-cream for lunch when it tastes so good?
Parents, don’t despair. Help is on the way. Middle childhood is coming. It is then that “the parts of the brain most closely associated with being human finally come online”: the ability to control impulses, to reason, to focus. It is interesting to learn that supporting the brain’s maturation at this stage is a specific event involving the adrenal glands, which begin to pump out powerful hormones known to affect the brain.
It is also useful to be reminded of the biological underpinnings of children’s maturation and development. The report tells us that in middle childhood the brain is at its peak for learning, and that physical development enables both large and fine motor skills to be applied in new ways, Perhaps most important in terms of living with others, children develop an awareness that others have minds, ideas and wishes of their own. This is the basis for an ability to consider others, and that “you can’t always have what you want”. Compromise is necessary in order to live in a family and to have friends.
Also, at this stage children move out more fully to a larger social world, tending to divide along gender lines, girls playing with girls, boys with boys. They are eager to learn social rules and are quick to raise questions about fairness and justice. They will let you know with great feeling when they feel that you, a teacher or a friend has been unfair, or that a sibling has received a larger portion of dessert.
Understanding the role that developmental readiness plays in children’s skills and behavior is so important in thinking about our own expectations as parents. It is challenging to live with little people who have not yet mastered the rules of social behavior, who express themselves in ways that are often unpleasant, who need our physical care but then begin to resist it, and whose emerging push for self-expression and independence can make life more difficult at times.
Understandably, we would like our children to express themselves more coherently, to tell us how they feel in words rather than behavior, to accept our judgment and to respect our own needs. But sometimes we expect them to be ahead not only of where they are, but of where they are capable of being. Before getting too worried or too angry about the behavior that disturbs us, we have to think about the match – or mismatch – between our expectations and our children’s developmental readiness.
That doesn’t mean our role as parents is to sit back and wait for it just to happen. Parents are leaders. To lead you have to be out in front – but not so far in front that you lose your followers. You set the path, checking to be sure it is not too steep or too rocky a path for a child to follow.
Learning about middle childhood can help us know that the next steps we have been waiting for are just around the bend in the road.