Middle childhood, from 6 to 12 years of age, is the crucial time when children try to find their path amidst paths set by society, developing their self-image and setting their goals for the future. The ability to forge a positive pathway at this juncture in life can have major implications for their success as adults. During middle childhood, the child develops and consolidates its academic self-perception and this period is characterized by the development of positive attitudes toward school, academic achievement, and aspirations for the future (Coll and Szalacha, 2004). It is the responsibility of parents to encourage children in middle childhood to take positive pathways by ensuring they have access to critical resources in the present and the future.
Between the age of 5 years and adolescence, “transitions occur in physical maturity, cognitive abilities and learning, the diversity and impact of relationships with others, and exposure to new settings, opportunities, and demands” (Bornstein, 2002, p. 73). These factors affect the interactions between parents and children. In recent times, changing concepts of family and formal schooling have isolated children belonging to this group from participating in adult society (Bornstein, 2002). Children are more involved in their school activities and do not partake in the adult world.
The main responsibility of parents at this stage of the child is to adjust their interactions, cognition, and emotional behavior to the changing characteristics of children to guide them towards attaining greater autonomy. By nature, middle childhood children have the following three characteristics: a growing ability to reason in terms of abstract representations of objects and events; ability to organize tasks more maturely and independently than in early childhood; a quest for acquiring information and for using new knowledge in reasoning, thinking, problem-solving, and action (Bornstein, 2002).
They also have social cognitive skills the ability to evaluate others with greater accuracy and more often can see classmates from an adult perspective(Malloy et al, 1996). They are also capable of distinguishing between various psychological traits such as being shy, outgoing, nice, mean, active, inactive, etc. (Heyman and Gelman, 2000). While interacting with others middle school children tend to adopt the perspectives of others and this tendency helps them understand others (Bornstein, 2004).
These growing social cognitive skills enable them to describe and explain conditions and events, to deceive others and to detect their deceptions and predict the behavior of other children. Children in middle childhood, in addition to growth in interpersonal understanding, increasingly understand many broader conditions of life such as conception, illness, and death, though they do not know much about human biology. They also exhibit a strong sense of fairness and believe that they do have rights to some degree of self-determination and self-expression and are also capable of distinguishing between female and male gender roles (Coll and Szalacha, 2004).
At this stage, the basic concept of parent-child relationships shifts toward the idea that parents and children mutually have responsibilities to each other, rather than focus on parents as those who satisfy children’s needs.
Parents need to give more elaborate and detailed explanations while correcting a child in the middle childhood stage whereas, in earlier years, they could have had the same impact by distracting or admonishing a child (Coll and Scalacha, 2004). In the case of adoption, middle childhood children have the cognitive capacity to understand what adoption means and they identify adoption and birth as alternative paths to parenthood. They may question their parents regarding adoption-related issues. Thus cognitive change explains the distinctive patterns of behavior and responsiveness during middle childhood and alters the demands on parents.
Middle childhood is the crucial time when children need to be prepared to face the future. But the pathways to success are different for different children depending on their cultural, ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds. During middle childhood, children of color and immigrant backgrounds may face discrimination and devaluation (Coll and Szalacha, 2004). These factors influence the way they react and interact with mainstream society. It is important to understand the experiences of such children within the family, school, and community contexts, to understand and guide them better. The “ecological” and “interactionist” approach to child development holds that children’s development is influenced not only by family systems but also by other institutions with which the child and family interact.
Consider for example a child from a remote African village. As the child emerges into middle childhood, due to the poverty and backward nature of the region, children are forced into labor and family responsibilities very early in life. In such a culture there is no transition phase called middle childhood as the child moves from early childhood to adulthood. In most African cultures, children assume responsibility even before the age of three (Hickson and Kriegler, 1996). Disasa (1988) comments that in Africa, learning is combined with ongoing responsibilities ranging from simple jobs to more difficult tasks:
Running errands and guarding the home during the day while parents are away are among the simple tasks. More rigorous tasks include tilling and cultivating plots of land, tending domestic animals all day long, drawing water from a river and well, and collecting firewood for use. Going to formal school for those who are fortunate enough to live within a school vicinity or district means additional responsibility (p. 18).
In South Africa, African children learn endurance and perseverance very early in their lives as a result of exposure to “the harshness and injustice of apartheid, the pain of hunger, lack of adequate clothing, difficulty encountered while walking long distances” (Hickson and Kriegler, 1996, p. 32). They also lack basic educational opportunities and materials. As a result of this tough environment and surrounding culture African children learn to develop “early maturity in self discipline, great patience and a willingness and determination to endure hardships” (Hickson and Kriegler, 1996, p.32). This shows that middle childhood needs in the parenting context differ from culture to culture.
Though children may come from different cultures and backgrounds, they are exposed to similar kinds of settings during middle childhood in areas such as schools, neighborhoods, popular media, and other institutions. These common settings interact with the children’s biological, constitutional and psychological characteristics to either promote or inhibit their development. The impact of these settings on the child depends upon the extent of poverty and segregation, and the strength of institutional values and goals. Inadequate resources and conflicts between institutional ideologies and cultural or familial values can undermine the development of children’s competencies.
Social Contexts and Relationships -Role of School
School is the main setting in which the development of the child takes place during the middle childhood years. Schools provide children with increased individual freedom and heightened demands for being in control of their behavior (Coll and Szalacha, 2004). According to Eccles, three key forces combine to influence children’s self-confidence and engagement in tasks and activities in middle childhood:
“…cognitive changes that heighten children’s ability to reflect on their own successes and failures; a broadening of children’s worlds to encompass peers, adults, and activities outside the family; and exposure to social comparison and competition in school classrooms and peer groups” (Eccles, 1999, p. 30).
Social networks expand significantly during middle childhood and there is more emphasis on peer relationships in early adolescence. Entering school increases the number and kinds of developmental tasks and influences that children encounter. For parents, this means, children’s activities and their choice of friends need to be monitored. Parents continue to be viewed as sources of emotional and financial support during middle childhood (Hunter and Youniss, 1982).
Children from 5 to 12 years old show an interest in developing relationships outside the family (Hartmann, and Rankin, 1990), and by the ages 10 to 12 years, children become skilled at initiating, maintaining, and cooperating with peer relationships. As a result, they can manage conflicts with peers (Selman and Schultz, 1989). Consequently, parents may trust the child to manage his peer relations by himself. During middle childhood, children see their peers as important sources of intimacy, as well as companionship. It must be noted here that parental and peer influences are complementary. While families provide children with basic social skills for successful peer relationships, children often “import” knowledge, expectations, and behavioral tactics from their peers, and with these maturing abilities, they can relate better with their parents (Collins, 1995).
Parents must facilitate children’s lives at school. Classrooms, playgrounds, and school buses ensure that children have opportunities for diverse contacts (Hartup, 1996). It is best if children study in the same setting during their elementary and middle school years to form stable relationships with peers (Epstein, 1989). In the later grades of middle childhood, children have multiple teachers, classrooms, and common spaces and this makes more demands on the parents for monitoring of school experiences. Thus the transitions of middle childhood generate new tasks for parents as well as developmental challenges for children.
Risks and Coping
Middle childhood children face increased risks and stressors. The physical transitions of middle childhood and the probability of early puberty hasten exposure to some of the health risks of adulthood. Children of this stage are often victims of accidents, tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use. The fact that children are making social contacts outside the home also increases the risk they are exposed to. Children feel differing levels of loneliness depending on the level of support they get from the neighborhood (Bornstein, 2002). Negative neighborhood characteristics are linked to poorer socioemotional functioning. Neighborhood affects the way parents relate to their children. Parents with negative perceptions of their neighborhoods supervise children more closely (Dubow et al., 1997). Also, neighborhood characteristics can exacerbate familial difficulties.
Low-income African American children living in a single-parent family show especially high levels of aggression if they also live in a financially disadvantaged neighborhood (Kupersmidt, Griesler, DeRosier, Patterson, and Davis, 1995). Studies show the risk of exposure to violence is greatest for middle childhood children and this is attributed to the ready availability of weapons to individuals of all ages (Bornstein, 2002). Parents may play a supportive role by monitoring the degree of risk associated with outside settings and by imposing appropriate safety measures, including training children to respond to high-risk situations.
Development of Self-Concept, Self-Regulation, and Social Responsibility
Parents, teachers, coaches, etc play a significant role in the growth and development of 5- to 12-year-old children (Eccles, 1999). During middle childhood, children can describe themselves well indicating growth of cognitive concepts, awareness of cultural norms, and expectations for performance. Moreover, they can compare among self and others and provide feedback on characteristics, skills, and abilities. Linked to changing concepts of self are greater capacities for self-control and self-regulation.
Parents and adult mentors can help children be self-regulated by exposing them to standards of conduct and models of socially valued behaviors and by providing rewards and punishments in accord with those standards (Smith and Smoll, 1990). They can have healthy discussions with them regarding what is right and what is wrong and why it is important to do the right thing. Parents’ and teachers’ impact on motivation is greatest when they offer encouragement emphasizing opportunities for learning and mastery. Instead, stressing the need to succeed at social or task goals will put pressure on the children. As self-regulation increases during middle childhood, parents gradually allow children to assume more responsibilities in various spheres (Bornstein, 2002).
Normative changes in Parent-Child Relationships
Middle childhood has its distinct pattern of parent-child interactions. Generally, there is less interaction as children spend most of their time in school. Hence there is a less negative interaction between them as well. During times spent together, parents and children both show less overt affection during middle childhood than previously. But studies show that parents feel there is no change in their enjoyment of parenting or in the positive regard they have for their child (McNally et al., 1991). Middle childhood children are more depressed, avoid parents, or engage in passive non-cooperation with their parents compared to children of the earlier stage (Clifford, 1959).
Furthermore, children become increasingly likely to accuse their parents of failing in their role as a parent. Mothers and children spend more time together than do fathers and children and interactions are likely to be more emotional in mother-child than in father-child interactions (Russell and Russell, 1987). Both mothers and fathers pay more attention to school achievement and homework during middle childhood (McNally et al., 1991). Four central issues of parenting that are emphasized by the developmental changes of middle childhood are: adapting control processes, fostering self-management and a sense of responsibility, facilitating positive relationships with others, and managing experiences in extra-familial settings (Bornstein, 2002).
Adapting control processes: In middle childhood, parents report less frequent physical punishment and increasing use of other techniques such as “deprivation of privileges, appeals to children’s self-esteem or sense of humor, arousal of children’s sense of guilt, and reminders that children are responsible for what happens to them”. These techniques show that parents expect children to control their behavior. A key component of effective control is parental monitoring. Children are most likely to manifest positive developmental outcomes when parents practice child-centered patterns of discipline, accompanied by clearly communicated demands, parental monitoring, and an atmosphere of acceptance toward the child (authoritative parenting)
Fostering self-management and a sense of responsibility: During this phase, there is a gradual transition from parental regulation of children’s behavior to self-regulation by the child (Maccoby, 1984). Maccoby says that the transfer of power from parents to children involves a three-phase developmental process: parental regulation, co-regulation, and, finally, self-regulation. In the intermediate period of co-regulation, parents retain general supervisory control but expect children to exercise gradually more extensive responsibilities towards self-regulation. This co-regulatory experience is the basis for achieving greater autonomy in adolescence and young adulthood.
Facilitating positive relationships with others: When parents treat siblings differently, it has been found to nurture negative relationships between the siblings. Children who consider themselves neglected by their parents compared to their siblings often show negative personality adjustment after middle childhood. Parents also facilitate their children’s positive peer relationships indirectly and directly throughout childhood (Bornstein, 2004). Direct efforts by parents include effects taken to manage their children’s relations with other children and the transmission of specific social skills for effective interactions with peers (Bornstein, 2004)). Indirect efforts refer by parents are those such as helping the children to regulate their emotions, making them more effective in their interactions with peers (Bornstein, 2004).
Managing Extra-familial Experiences: During this stage, parents must monitor extra-familial settings and negotiate with non-familial adults on behalf of children. Of these extra-familial settings, the most prominent is school and the other is the neighborhood.
Parents must be more involved with schools and with the schoolwork of their children so that the child may have positive outcomes in school. Stevenson and Lee (1990) found that parents in the United States have lower expectations for and assign less importance to school achievement than Asian parents do; Parents born in the United States are more likely to believe that general cognitive development, motivation, and social skills are more important than academic skills (Stevenson and Lee, 1990). The parental expectations about children’s achievement and the importance parents assign to mastery of school tasks can influence middle childhood children to a great extent
Parenting during middle childhood is aimed at helping children adapt to distinctive transformations in human development and achieve greater autonomy and responsibility. Such transformations improve the present and ensure the future well-being of the children. It has been found by many studies that the best parenting style of middle childhood is one that is based on a child-centered attitude and marked by authoritativeness toward children.
This parenting style has been correlated with a variety of positive outcomes such as peer acceptance, academic success, competence in self-care, and competence and responsibility in a wide array of tasks. These outcomes are predictive of successful adaptation in later life. Moreover, research shows that for such positive outcomes to happen, parenting behavior and attitudes must be dominated by parental concerns and not by child characteristics or needs.
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