From the early childhood years to middle childhood, children undergo dramatic social and emotional changes. Just think of the difference between a child at the age of two and one at the age of seven or eight. An enormous amount of change and growth occurs during those intervening years. The typical two year old is famous for having temper tantrums and clinging to parents. Kids this age also struggle to do things on their own, have dramatic changes in mood, and often have a difficult time getting along with other children. A two-year-old child also requires constant supervision, lest his burgeoning curiosity lead to trouble.
Fast forward to age seven and you'll see that the child has become quite adept and doing things independently and is probably quite proud of such accomplishments. During middle childhood, kids become more competent and confident. Parents begin to place trust in the child, allowing him to take on daily tasks such as selecting his own clothes and making his own breakfast. Family friendships are still vital, but children are far less clingy at this age. Unlike the toddler years, when parental separation often led to fits of crying, the school-age child goes to school calmly and without much drama. During the day, the child interacts successfully with peers as well as listens to the teacher and follows directions.
While cognitive growth also plays an important role in this progression, a great deal of social and emotional growth also occurs during middle childhood. As children start school, their social world becomes much larger. Where most of their previous social interactions were primarily with family, the introduction of school opens up a whole new world of relationships with other people. This offers kids a much richer and deeper pool of social experiences with both familiar and unfamiliar people.
The Developing Social Self
As children enter school, they start to pay greater attention to those around them. As they notice other people more and more, they also begin to compare themselves to their peers. Self-concept grows gradually throughout childhood, starting in the early years as kids realize that they are independent individuals and progressing to a firm understanding of who they are and what they like. During middle school, kids also begin to develop a better sense of how they fit into their social environment.
During the first few years of elementary school, kids tend to have a naturally optimistic impression of themselves. They often overestimate their own abilities to perform certain actions such as counting to a hundred, jumping rope perfectly, or winning a race against a classmate. Gaining mastery of many basic skills is one important means of developing a sense of self-esteem. Through play, children begin to improve their skills and become adept and performing certain tasks and actions.
Children do begin to observe how their peers perform these same tasks and often start comparing themselves to others. A third-grade boy who prides himself of being a fast runner might be disappointed when another boy in his class beats him in a race during recess. This realization that he is not the best or fastest runner might have an impact on his overall sense of self. As he grows older, the boy will begin to place a greater emphasis on the things that are important to him. If running is still important, he might start practicing in order to improve his skills. Or, he might realize that he is a much better soccer player, so being the fastest runner is not as important any longer.
Forming Friendships in Middle Childhood
With this growing social world comes the introduction of friendship. Friendships become increasingly important throughout the middle school years. While kids obviously skill depend upon their parents and enjoy spending time with siblings, they also become more interested in building relationships with other people outside the family unit. Learning how to make and maintain friendships is an important part of the developmental process during this time. Few things can make a parent's heart ache more than to watch your child struggle to find friends or grapple with social rejection or even bullying behaviors from other kids. Fortunately, there are things that parents can do to ensure that their child is gaining the social competence that they need to succeed in school and later in life.
During the earliest years of childhood, kids tend not to put a lot of thought into choosing or making friends. In most cases, their choice of playmates during these early years is mostly a matter of proximity. The other kids are in the same place at the same time. As any parent or teacher can attest, conflicts are very common during early childhood since younger kids tend to lack the social skills such as sharing, listening, patience, and cooperation.
As kids move enter the school years, they become much more selective about who they choose as friends. Just as kids compare themselves to others, they also start making judgments about other children. Surprisingly, however, researchers have found that kids tend to be slow to make negative judgments about other kids. While adults are often quick to point out that "kids can be cruel," most children have generally positive perceptions about their classmates.
Kids do, however, start to take note of the characteristics of other kids and make decisions about which children they would like to be friends with. Some kids may gravitate towards one another because they share an interest in the same activities such as sports or video games. Other kids might be drawn to certain friends based on how outgoing they are, how they dress, or cooperative they are in groups. During this age, kids tend to select friends who are kind and accommodating, and somewhat outgoing. They tend to avoid children who are either too shy or too aggressive.
While parents might not have as much say over who their child befriends as they did when they were younger, there are still things that adults can do to guide kids towards friendships that are happy and healthy. Parents can start by encouraging their child to talk to other kids, but avoid being pushy. If a child seems interested in only playing with one best friend, parents might consider coaxing the child into hanging out with other children as well. School is a great place to make friends, but participating in activities outside of school such as playing softball or taking art classes provide further opportunities for developing positive social relationships.
Healthy friendships are marked by cooperation, kindness, trust, and mutual respect. So what should parents do if their child seems to be in an unhealthy friendship? Remembering that all friendships have their ups and downs can be helpful. The occasional conflicts or arguments are not necessarily a sign that the relationship is destructive or unhealthy. If, however, the friendship becomes a source of stress or anxiety, then it's time to take action. Parents should start by talking to their child and encouraging him to share his feelings with the friend. Adults should also help children understand the importance of walking away from the situation, especially if the friend is being physically or emotionally hurtful. Finally, parents and other adults can try to establish some distance between the child and the friend. For example, a teacher might choose to seat kids who are having conflicts apart from each other.
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